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Papua New Guinea: The World's First Climate Change 'Refugees'

Integrated Regional Information Networks (United Nations), Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, June 11, 2008

(Photo: C.I.A. World Factbook)

The 1,500 residents of Carteret Island, an atoll of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, are fast becoming the world's first climate change refugees.

Sea levels around the atoll have risen 10 centimeters in the past 20 years, inundating plantations, and the situation is deteriorating, islanders told IRIN, saying they urgently need assistance to be relocated to higher ground.

"Food gardens and coconut groves have been destroyed and children are going to school hungry," Ursula Rakova, chief executive officer of Tulele Peisa, a local nongovernmental organization advocating for the rights of islanders, told IRIN when asked about the rising sea levels on Carteret Island.

Many of the island's inhabitants have run out of food and their staple, coconuts, are being wiped out as the sea level rises.

"It is extremely difficult now for food crops to grow on the atolls. Salt water seeps through the land making it impossible for food to grow," Rakova said. "Breadfruit is seasonal and not as plentiful as it was 30 years ago and fruits are getting smaller in size … bananas struggle to grow in the salt-inundated land."

Few Options

While the Autonomous Bougainville Government (A.B.G.) takes the plight of the Carteret islanders seriously, its options are few. "We are doing all we can, but we have limited resources," said A.B.G. Member for Atolls Taehu Pais. In addition, there is the problem of acquiring the necessary land to relocate the islanders.

"At the moment people are living on 200 bales, or 5,000 kilograms, of rice sent by the Autonomous Bougainville Government. The supply will not last as many families have six children or more," said Rakova.

"Children are going to school, but on hungry stomachs," she said. "It is the children and women who are vulnerable," she added. For this reason her N.G.O. is assisting in negotiations with Tinputz landholders so that islanders can move to high land in the town on the mainland of Bougainville and build 10 homes on land provided by the Catholic Church.

The Papua New Guinea government responded to the Carteret issue by allocating 2 million kina ($700,000) in 2007 to a relocation program. Subsequently the A.B.G. administration decided the funds should be allocated not just to Carteret but to four other atoll islands as well.

The other atolls have made no relocation plans and are not as seriously affected as the Carterets, said Rakova, adding that the government funds were "not enough to cater for all the atolls."

Juliana Samsi, who is in charge of the Carteret Island Sub Health Center, told IRIN: "We encourage Tulele Peisa to continue to push for the relocation of Carteret islanders. We are so scared living on these atolls that any time soon waves will come and sweep over all of us. What will the A.B.G. do when this happens?"

Atolls Going Down Really Fast

Rakova said Carteret residents never previously feared the sea, but now worry that an enormous wave will wipe them off their island. "People see with their naked eyes the impact of the rising sea levels," she said. "The atolls are going down and going down really fast.

"Carteret islanders are victims of climate change and rising sea levels," Rakova said, "and industrialized nations have to support my people in their transition from the atolls to mainland Bougainville.

"[We] need financial support and Tulele Peisa needs 800,000 kina [$280,000] to build 10 family homes on the land donated by the Catholic Church of Bougainville."

Bougainville Island is recovering from a civil war that took the lives of more than 20,000 people. The P.N.G. government granted autonomy to the Bougainville in June 2005. With minimum funding from the P.N.G. government, A.B.G. is struggling to provide assistance to its 200,000-plus people. © IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]

From Integrated Regional Information Networks.

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