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75 Million Environmental Refugees to Plague Asia-Pacific

by Neena Bhandari

 SYDNEY - Pacific Islanders, aiming to secure their very survival, are calling for immediate commitments from the developed world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45 percent by 2020.

"For us, climate change is a reality. We have been experiencing high tidal waves, which has not been the case earlier," Pelenise Alofa Pilitati, Chairperson of the Church Education Director's Association in Kiribati, told IPS. "High tides and sea level rise will submerge our homeland. We don’t want to become environmental refugees."

Climate change could produce eight million refugees in the Pacific Islands, along with 75 million refugees in the Asia Pacific region in the next 40 years, warns a new report by aid agency, Oxfam Australia.

The report points out that "For countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tokelau, the Marshall Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Federated States of Micronesia, climate change is not something that could happen in the future but something they are experiencing now."

The Oxfam report documents how people are coping with more frequent flooding and storm surges, losing land and being forced from their homes, facing increased food and water shortages, and dealing with rising incidence of malaria and dengue.

"First, we were refugees of the World War then phosphate mining pushed us out. We can’t be displaced a third time because of climate change," says Pilitati, whose family is from Banaba Island in Kiribati. "This time if we lose our home, we will lose our identity, our culture. It is unacceptable."

The Republic of Kiribati is made up of 33 atolls and has a population of 93,000. Most of Kiribati - one of the Pacific nations most threatened by climate change - is less than 4 metres above sea level.

"It is hard on the young people. The Pacific has always had a great deal of migration for a number of reasons, but in the past people always expected to be able to return to their home countries," explains Agrees Marstella Jacks, former Attorney General of the Federated States of Micronesia. "Now they are faced with the possibility of never being able to return to their homeland. We will become a displaced and dispossessed people."

The Oxfam report argues that unless developed countries take urgent action to curb emissions, some Pacific island nations face the very real threat of becoming uninhabitable.

The report calls on Australia - one of the biggest polluters in the world - and New Zealand to reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2020 and by 95 percent by 2050. It also urged the two governments to contribute more money toward helping these island nations adapt to climate change.

Australia has committed to reducing its emissions by five per cent by 2020 - which could go up to 25 per cent if a global agreement is reached at the Copenhagen Climate Change conference in December.

As someone who has seen the inside of many high-level international negotiations, Jacks knows the dangers of smaller countries being bullied by threats and bribes from their bigger neighbours.

"The time for talking is over. The most recent IPCC [Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change] report suggests that low-lying countries such as Tuvalu have less than 30 years before they become inhabitable. It’s widely accepted that this is based on relatively conservative and out of date data, so you can see the incredible urgency for the people of the Pacific," says Jacks, who has focused much of her academic and legal work on the law of the seas and the battle against over fishing - an especially relevant issue in the Pacific.

Tuvalu consists of four reef islands and five true atolls - islands of coral that encircle a lagoon partially or completely. It is the fourth smallest country in the world, measuring just 26 square kilometres and home to 12,000 people.

With most of the country less than three feet above sea level with the highest elevation at 15 feet, Tuvalu is vulnerable to any future sea level rise and extreme weather events. It is also affected by ‘king tide’, which can raise the sea level higher than a normal high tide, and this may threaten to submerge the nation entirely.

"Becoming climate refugees is absolutely intolerable to us. Our island land mass is shrinking due to coastal erosion, islets are disappearing, supply of crabs, fish and coconuts on which my people survive are diminishing," Reverend Tafue Lusama, Chairperson of the Climate Action Network in Tuvalu, told IPS. "It is impacting on our livelihood, our economy," Lusama stressed.

"There is almost no reliable supply of potable water. Salt water is getting into underground water and we have to rely on rain water for drinking, but this year we had a long drought during the rainy season," says Lusama, who grew up on Nukulaelae, the smallest island in Tuvalu, but now lives in the national capital, Funafuti.

Lusama wants a coherent and realistic deal to come out of Copenhagen as his country aims to become the first zero-carbon country after vowing to generate all of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

The Oxfam report details how Pacific Islanders are already adapting to their changing climate.

Fijians, for example, are taking steps to ‘climate-proof’ their villages. They are testing salt-resistant varieties of staple foods, planting mangroves and native grasses to halt coastal erosion, protecting fresh water wells from saltwater intrusion and relocating homes and community buildings away from vulnerable coastlines.

Acutely aware of the impact climate change is having on the future prospects and outlook of young people, Pilitati says, "We are getting young people involved in growing mangroves to stop tides. The Education Department is running a compulsory adaptation program on how to combat climate change in primary and high schools."

Another report this week from the Australian Institute think tank, calls on Australia to develop immigration policies toward providing refuge to Pacific island communities which may be displaced by climate change.

At the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Summit scheduled to take place in Cairns, Australia from Aug. 4 to 7, many Island leaders want climate to be at the top of the agenda. They will push the Australian and New Zealand governments to commit to climate mitigation, not just adaptation.

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