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Issue #1789      August 9, 2017

Climate of fear in the Torres Strait

“The island is being eaten”

Torres Strait fisherman Joseph Billy says he has seen more land disappearing from Masig (Yorke Island) every year. “Last five years, every year I have moved my shed back from the beach another few metres,” Mr Billy said.

Diana Pabi, left, and Nelly Dau walk through Boigu Island cemetery, which is under threat from climate change.

“We used to have a road that went all around the island but now it is broken. We will lose our land eventually.”

Masig is 2.7 kilometres long and 800 metres at its widest point, with a population of about 250. It is one of many small islands in the Torres Strait now threatened by the impacts of climate change, including coastal erosion and inundation from rising seas, higher temperatures, shifting rainfall and damage to the critical marine ecosystems on which their livelihoods depend.

Alan Passi, a fisherman on Thursday Island, said that if a lot of coral is lost, the economy will be affected. “It will get harder for us to hunt fish,” he said. “If the coral dies out so do the fish. It’s the mother of all the animals. It doesn’t look the same now. It’s not what I remember.”

Another fisherman, Phillip Kewis Mabo, is also concerned. “I’m close to 60 now,” he said. “Something is changing. Right now we are seeing many more sharks, tuna and other pelagic fish. The pattern is no longer seasonal. They are here all the time in great numbers. We don’t know why.”

Recently, Oxfam Australia climate change staff toured parts of Masig, along with other nearby islands, to observe first-hand the impacts locals are experiencing.

Oxfam Australia chief officer Helen Szoke said the islands were made up of strong, flourishing communities, but residents had been forced into the frontline of the climate crisis.

Elder Dennis Gibuma on Boigu Island, a low-lying island just a few kilometres from the coast of Papua New Guinea. It is the most northerly inhabited of the Torres Strait islands with a population of about 250 people. Periodic flooding has always been a challenge for those on Boigu. But with climate change, the community faces ever-greater challenges from coastal erosion and inundation.

“The Torres Strait Islands are already facing the challenges of delivering health services, housing, secure water supplies and other essential infrastructure in such remote and isolated communities,” Ms Szoke said. “But the impacts of climate change are growing and pose a long-term threat, including community members losing their connection to land and culture if they are faced with the last resort – being forced to leave their islands.”

Songhi Billy, an engineering officer on Masig, said the community was doing everything possible to try to slow the rate of erosion.

“In the short-term we can do what we can,” he said. “We can’t stop the erosion; our hope is to slow it down. Long-term, we may have to evacuate the island.

“But I am not going. Slowly, I see Masig getting out of something I can control. The island is being eaten. This is a big issue. I kind of feel hopeless in a sense. Our land is part of us.”

Torres Council Mayor Vonda Malone said while there had been a lot of attention on climate change issues in the Pacific, there was less awareness of the real and frontline impacts in the Torres Strait.

“In Boigu, part of the cemetery has nearly been lost to the sea and graves are at risk of being washed away,” she said.

“These communities are facing ongoing challenges in retaining their foreshore and their gathering places – this is their land and the land of their ancestors.”

Ms Malone said that while some funding for adapting to climate change was filtering through, there were no resources to address the social impacts.

“There is a feeling of hopelessness as communities do not know where this is going to lead,” she says.

Boigu Island Elder Dennis Gibuma said a seawall built several years ago was no longer adequately protecting the community. “Things are changing every year,” he said.

“Our seawall is no longer any good. When the high tide and strong winds come together, it breaks.

“We pray we don’t lose our homes. We don’t want to leave this place.”

Masig resident Hilda Mosby said climate change was “affecting us big time”.

“When we talk about relocation, it is clear this is very much a last resort,” she said. “This is our home. No-one is willing to leave, to lose their cultural ties, the loved ones they have laid to rest here.

“We want to try everything to keep our community here.”

Dr Szoke said the situation in the Torres Strait shows the need for stronger action by the federal government to end Australia’s climate pollution, including no new coal mines and achieving zero emissions before 2040.

“It also highlighted the need to provide greater support to communities like those in the Torres Strait, to build resistance, develop adaptation options and tap into the potential for renewable, energy,” she said.

Koori Mail

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