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The Torres Strait Islands Are Being Buried By Sea And Nobody Seems To Care

Climate change is stealing the Islanders' homes, livelihoods and connection to ancestral lands.

02/11/2017 11:51 AM AEDT | Updated 02/11/2017 11:51 AM AEDT
Fairfax Media via Getty Images
August, 9 2006: Ngukis Abednego of Masig Island in the Torres Strait swims during high tide. There has been flooding on several islands generating concerns about climate change and rising sea levels.

On the island of Masig in Australia's remote Torres Strait, engineering officer Songhi Billy feels a sense of hopelessness as he watches his home being 'eaten away' by the sea. Meanwhile, across the Strait on Boigu Island, residents are watching the graves of their ancestors at risk of being washed away.

These are the confronting realities for Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal Peoples, who are facing coastal erosion washing away roads and threatening homes, sea walls unable to withstand inundation from rising tides and damage to their precious marine ecosystems.

Despite these challenges, when I visited the diverse islands of the Torres Strait this year to observe the realities of climate change first hand, there was a consistent message from those who call these isles home: while there is sense of hopelessness in the face of the growing threats posed by climate change, leaving is an option of absolute last resort.

There has long been no doubt: climate change is a looming catastrophe for those in our world who deserve it least

A new Oxfam report released today highlights that an average of 21.8 million people were forced from their homes by extreme weather disasters each year between 2008 and 2016.

The report reveals that people in low and lower-middle income countries were about five times more likely than people in high-income countries to be forced from their homes by extreme weather disasters. This is likely an understatement, as the numbers do not account for 'slow-onset' disasters like drought and rising sea levels.

Climate change is already forcing millions people from their land and homes -- through rising seas, supercharged storms and prolonged and more intense droughts.

The people of the Torres Strait share much in common with our island neighbours in the Pacific. The communities in these areas share two unfair realities -- the regions are on the frontline of the climate crisis, hit hardest and first by its impacts, yet each has contributed almost nothing to the causes of climate change that threaten to force them from their homes.

These communities also share their isolation and remoteness -- realities that can sometimes mean their plight is too easily forgotten.

But the people of these islands also share a deep connection to their land and an equally deep sense of pride in their communities and culture. They are taking the lead in building resilience to the impacts of climate change, despite often having the fewest resources to do so.

Oxfam's research reveals that in the first nine months of this year more than 3 million people in low-income countries were forced to move by weather and climate-related events, of whom more than half were displaced by drought.

Not only is climate change impacting most heavily on people living in poverty -- as well as Indigenous people, women and children -- it is increasing their poverty and the inequality that made them vulnerable to start with.

Next week, global leaders will meet in Bonn for the UN climate change negotiations, COP 23, which is being presided over by Fiji. The historic meeting -- the first ever to be led by a small island nation -- is an opportunity for world leaders to act on the grave injustices being inflicted on the world's vulnerable communities.

Globally, we must dramatically strengthen action towards ending climate pollution, in line with the Paris commitment of striving to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Another major global meeting will take place next September when the world adopts a new Global Compact on Migration -- another critical opportunity to address migration and displacement in the context of climate change.

Back home in Australia, the Federal Government must stop clinging to technologies of the past, end its out-dated fascination with the fossil fuel industry and overcome the short-term political opportunism and climate-policy paralysis of the past decade.

To meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement, the government must completely phase out coal from its energy system and shift to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030 to achieve zero emissions before 2040.

Critically, this means saying no to new coalmines, including Adani's proposed Carmichael mega-mine. The government's new energy policies seem incapable of meeting even Australia's current and woefully inadequate emissions reduction targets, let alone the far steeper cuts actually needed to do our part under the Paris Agreement.

The government must also step up to its obligations by increasing support for renewable energy plans and helping developing countries adapt to the impacts of climate change. There has long been no doubt: climate change is a looming catastrophe for those in our world who deserve it least, stealing their homes, livelihoods and connection to ancestral lands.

In the Torres Strait this year, Mayor Vonda Malone spoke of her community's feeling of hopelessness -- of doing their utmost but watching as their land was washed away. This feeling of despondency -- and the determination of people to remain on their home land -- is poignantly captured by Songhi.

"In the short term, we can do what we can," he explained during our visit.

"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 island getting out of something I can control. The island is being eaten. I feel kind of hopeless in a sense. Our land is part of us."

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