Resilience against climate change in one of Honiara’s oldest settlements

BY IRWIN ANGIKI

It’s a cool evening with sounds of small waves gently lapping nearby and laughter of children playing in the distance, a recipe for a relaxing moment. But, Kevianga isn’t.

Squinting eyes lost out in the sea, 40-year-old Lemuel Kevianga’s mind is a warzone – torn between worries over the burdens of his people and their struggles against a backdrop of increasing economic challenges, an upward curve in population growth, endless sickness and disease woes, low levels of education, ebbing traditional and cultural values, and the cruel effects and impacts of climate change.

Kevianga is losing sleep over his beloved Lord Howe settlement.

One of Honiara’s oldest & most dense settlements

Nestled in the heart of Honiara, Solomon Islands’ capital, the Lord Howe settlement is home to nearly a thousand inhabitants from the country’s most northern outlier near the border with PNG known as the Ontong Java atolls. Ontong Javans are Polynesians.

At around two hectares and nearly as old as Honiara city itself, the Lord Howe settlement is one of the most dense of Honiara’s 92 informal settlements identified in a 2019 study led by the World Bank Group.

Community built seawall to prevent further erosion and seawater encroachment. Photo credit – Irwin Angiki.

A major study by the Honiara City Council (HCC) and the national government in 2016, supported by the UN Habitat and RMIT University, found the settlement’s population density to be 218 residents per hectare. Honiara’s average population density then was 26.8.

The figures are believed to be higher nowadays, given population growth against the same land area.

Lord Howe settlement is enclosed on all four sides. To the north is the sea, to the west is the Mataniko river, to the east is the city’s only major hospital, the National Referral Hospital (NRH), and the city’s main highway runs along the settlement’s southern boundary.

The settlement reportedly began in the early 1960s. It is said the pioneers favoured the location because of its proximity to the sea, allowing them to live some resemblance to their way of life in the islands where they are connected to the sea.

Changing landscape

Kevianga who has been living here nearly all his life said there have been huge changes since his earliest recollection of memory of the settlement.

Being highly prone to coastal flooding, riverine flooding and flooding from the drainage and stream that runs into the settlement, along the years the land has eroded, reducing its elevation level.

The HCC and Government 2016 report said most parts of the settlement, towards the sea, were below the 0.5m high water mark.

Lemuel Kevianga a concerned settlement resident and young leader. Photo credit – Irwin Angiki

Sea wave action during bad weather and cyclones have also eaten away the seafront, bringing the shoreline closer to the first line of houses.

Kevianga’s family home stands on their plot of land which is at the furthest corner of the settlement, right where the sea meets the river at the river mouth.

They have built a concrete wall along the riverbank all the way to the sea front; the freshwater is just five metres away from the stairs to Kevianga’s home, with the sea’s spilling waves gently laving against the seawall only 10 metres away.

However, it wasn’t always like this.

“In the 1970s and beyond it was said one had to walk about 20m from our house towards the river before setting foot in the water. And, to get to the sea, we walked nearly 100m from our house.

“In the 1980s I remember there were few houses after ours, a few metres towards the middle of the river. Over the years the level of the river rose and with flooding, the owners relocated further into the settlement.”

Where Kevianga pointed is near the middle of the river, nearly two metres deep and a busy highway for outboard motor engines.

“The seafront of 1980s is a far cry from what it is today. Sometimes when the delta landscape changes, the sandy beach can be so wide and long that you could fit two soccer pitches along the beachfront, and it stretched from the river mouth all the way eastwards past the hospital seafront.”

School teacher Mrs Rosa Sapivaka, 54, said the devastating flood in 2014 brought major, permanent changes to the landscape of the settlement, washing away huge strips of land beside the river, and more in the seafront.

“Some houses along the sea front have been removed and families relocated further into the settlement as the shoreline was permanently moved further inland.

Kingae – a lost tradition

The beach was the playing ground for the community, where men, women, youths and children gathered in the late afternoons to play soccer, volleyball, rugby, touch rugby or athletics.

One of the water stand pipes the community uses to access clean water. Photo credit – Irwin Angiki.

There was a traditional customary sport called the kingae, which used to be held on this huge stretch of sandy beach; a custom which celebrated the first-born son of each family and involved racing either by canoe along the river and sea, or by running along the beach, similar to a 100 or 200 metre track event.

The last kingae was held in the early 2000s, says Aaron Sangai, 50, who had lived there in the 1980s but had recently moved to Honiara’s inland suburbs.

This was markedly the last time the diminishing beach could afford to cater for the large crowd which this event attracted. The following years, the beach never recovered and this customary practice was halted. Kingae is now only recounted from memory.

Water and sanitation

Water tanks to trap rain water was the main source of clean drinking water and has been around since the settlement’s beginning, however, as population growth became significant, water had to be sourced from the country’s water authority.

Following a 2019 study by the World Bank Group for the local water authority, Solomon Water, nearly two dozen stand-pipes are stationed across the settlement, providing clean water to supplement the tanks.

As part of their culture, the settlers use the sea for bathing and defaecation. Hence, most of the houses do not have proper toilets and septic waste management systems, except for the few houses near the highway.

Self-employed Topa Hatigeva, 43, says the further away one builds from the sea the more inconvenient it became to depend on the sea, so they built their own systems.

However, due to the shallow water table it is very challenging to build proper toilets and their waste management tanks.

When it rains, the septic tanks overflow, spilling effluent into the water ways which meander through the settlement.

More frequent rains due to climate change is making matters worse, says Mr Hatigeva, who now resides in one of Honiara’s inland suburbs, but regularly visits and spends time with family members at the settlement.

A creek flows into the settlement from across the highway which also adds to the flooding during rains, bringing pollution by way of organic rubbish, plastic objects and wastes from communities upcreek.

Disease, pollution and hygiene

Pollution hits the settlement on all fronts.

A Rapid Coastal Assessment study headed by the South Pacific Commission (SPC) in 2020 found the Mataniko river to contain unsafe levels of pollutants such as sewage and other contaminants, which come from the communities upstream including the light industry at Chinatown.

The adjacent hospital to the east releases waste into the sea which affects the settlement, along with the sea breeze which blows in bad odour.

The highway offers dust and vehicle fumes.

Hatigeva says sicknesses such as diarrhoea, malaria, influenza and the common cold are regular.

Outboard motor highway at rivermouth just metres from nearest house. Photo credit – Irwin Angiki.

“Flooding in every rain, whether huge or small, the sewage and rubbish from the creek running into the settlement is spread throughout the settlement, causes sicknesses, diseases and a lot of inconvenience, and these diseases and parasites spread due to the crowded nature of the settlement, such as coughing, tuberculosis, flu and diarrhoea.

“This disturbs children in their schooling and their growth, and adults in their employment and whatever work they are engaged in. And, now that medicines you have to purchase from the pharmacies, it is an added cost for us.”

Social changes

Mrs Sapivaka believes the deteriorating values in traditional beatitudes and values can also be blamed on climate change and its impacts.

“There is a significant rise in social issues such as domestic violence, the age-group indulging in cigarette and alcohol getting younger, teenage pregnancy and marriage. This is because climate-change related impacts and effects take up most of the parents’ time that they have less and less time to monitor their children.”

Mr Sangai says, “An example are the few incidents over the years in which a man assaults his spouse because of something related to the rainy weather or the very hot temperature, spoiling something in their house, etc.”

Hatigeva says, “When it rains, even moderately, the settlement will flood, which directly means there’s no school that day for the little children, even the older students. This is how more and more students are behind in their studies, and begin to lose interest in their schooling.”

Resilience and community solutions

The Ontong Javans are a hardy people. With very minimal or no government support, the community are fighting back.

Seawall:

A business man from the Lord Howe settlement has given back to his community by building a landfill in front of the settlement to act as buffer against the sea and wave action.

The 2014 flood removed the sandy shore line and brought waves straight to the doorsteps of the nearest houses. Whenever there was rough seas, the waves would wash into the settlement.

“Businessman Tarzan brought it on himself to help the community, and began building the landfill more than a year later,” Kevianga said.

Over the years, several cyclones and cyclonic weather have damaged the landfill, but the businessman returns and refills it, and continues to do so today, expanding and compacting the ground and now lining the shoreline with wave breakers.

River wall:

Community river wall to prevent further erosion. Photo credit – Irwin Angiki.

Home owners of houses near the river have pooled their resources, building a concrete wall along the bank preventing river water eroding what’s left. However, the wall is helpless in the event of flooding.

Rebuilding higher:

Home owners are raising up their houses, not only to accommodate more people and provide more leisure space and cooler spots, but to escape the sinking effect of constant flooding and a sandy base.

“Now the houses in the settlement are getting higher than before, this is because houses over the years have dropped, and in order to combat this, we are building higher. Some are applying concrete slabs under their homes to hold their building in place, and slow down the sinking effect,” Hatigeva says.

Proactive politicians with heart

The Ontong Javans just came through the polls this year, voting in a new charismatic young leader to be their member of parliament who has been involved in community initiatives to help the settlement and people back on the Ontong Java atolls.

MP Polycarp Paea, 47, in an interview said relocation, which is a much-contested topic, is possible and can be done within his four-year term in parliament.

“I have seen firsthand and can say that indeed climate change has affected my constituency so much.

“The main reason I came into politics is to help my people of Ontong Java and Sikaiana, with climate change being in the forefront of issues surrounding these two groups of people since we all come from low lying atolls on the fringes of our country’s border, far away from the big islands.

“I will continue with the ongoing work with non-government organisations to help my constituency against the impacts of climate change. I have already set up a committee which is working on it.

“I will find land to relocate my people, land either here near the capital on Guadalcanal, or in Isabel province or on Malaita province.”

Landfill in progress. Photo credit – Jeremy Gwao.

Meanwhile, Kevianga following our first interview, has successfully been voted as the provincial member of assembly (MPA) for Sikaiana, the other atoll group which makes up the Malaita Outer Island constituency.

Kevianga hails from both Ontong Java and Sikaiana. He is also the Malaita province’s new Finance Minister.

He assures that he will push in his political capacity to help the settlement where he is needed.

There is light at the end of the tunnel for the Lord Howe settlement with a promising set of leadership at the political level working in synergy with community and traditional leaders to find ways forward for this vibrant community.

*Reporting for this story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network

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