Sinking sands in the Western Solomons

Sea level only a few meters before covering this island
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As dawn broke in the Western Solomons, frigate birds were searching for their resting place only to find few coral stones. The stones are what is left of a sinking island. These stones sit above sea level during low tides and disappeared underwater during high tides.

The birds fought for the stones to rest. After minutes of fighting, few birds flew away while few sat on the stones in despair wondering what had happened to their resting place. The birds are not alone, people have also shared the grief as their childhood memories and heritage were taken away.

This story revealed how sea level rise took away fond memories of sinking islands in the Western Province of Solomon Islands in a span of three years.

Solomon Islands has six main islands, Choiseul, New Georgia, Santa Isabel, Malaita, Guadalcanal and Makira, which are characterized by rugged and mountainous landscape of volcanic origin. Between and beyond the bigger islands are hundreds of smaller volcanic islands and low lying coral atolls. All of the mountainous islands of volcanic origin are forested with many coastal areas surrounded by fringing reefs and lagoons. More than 300 of the 994 islands are inhabited.

According to country’s National Determined Contribution (NDC) 2021 report, Solomon Islands hope is on the Paris Agreement ambition to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 oC above pre-industrial levels if it is to withstand the risks and impacts posed by climate change.

A study carried out by World Vision Solomon Islands shows that warmer sea water, coral bleaching, sea-level rise, coastal erosion, soil salinization, changes to tidal patterns and population growth are all connected, and negatively impacting the marine environment.

Solomon Islands Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Disaster Management and Meteorology says sea levels will rise by as much as 1 meter by 2100, increasing the level of risks to low lying coastal communities throughout the country. Some of these risks include increased coastal erosion due to the rising sea levels as currently being experienced in low laying areas.

The rising sea levels also expose these communities to other risks such as coastal salt water intrusion, which is a serious problem for coral atolls and which leads to decreased levels of fresh water supplies and increased risks to communities’ food gardens and food security in general.

I accompanied 65-year-old, Freedom Tozaka – the Principal Education Officer of Western Province Education Authority on September this year to see firsthand the effect of climate change on islands close to Gizo, the capital of Western Province in Solomon Islands.

Few minutes’ boat drive west from the Western Provincial capital, Gizo, lies the wreckage of Nusa Ivili Island. The island was once a hotspot for communities around Gizo to go for a picnic in the 90s, early 2000 until mid this year when sea level rise invaded the island.

What is left of Nusa Ivili Island in Western Province. This island went underwater in less than three years.

“It is upsetting and surprising that this island went underwater in less than three years. This is a beautiful island with a long sandy beach. It was a haven for people who came and spent their time here,” Tozaka said.

He adds that Nusa Ivili was an inhabited island full of life with beautiful orchid flowers around the island giving sweet aroma for people visiting the island.

“Fish and other seafoods were also abundant – a perfect island to take nap while entertained by the sound of the seabirds and the cold sea breeze coming from Kolombangara Island,” Tozaka said while shaking his head.

He recalled he and his friend went to the Island back in 2018 for a barbeque after returning from a trip to Shortland Islands.

In her statement when launching the Emissions Gap Report 2021, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Inger Andersen said Climate change is no longer a future problem but it’s a ‘now’ problem.

“As we saw this year, devastating impacts are spreading across the globe and growing ever stronger. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told us a few months ago that we have a 50 per cent chance of exceeding a 1.5°C temperature threshold within the next few decades,” she said.

Heartbroken with the scene beforehand, the skipper starts the engine and we travelled further down to a few small islands that were also threatened by climate change.

Cruising past a few beautiful islands, the conversation drew to a close as we approached Mburuburu island, Nusa Belama Islands and Sulumania Island.

This time it was difficult for Tozaka as he had a close connection with the small islands.

Some of the small islands belong to Tozaka’s tribe and now they are eaten up piece by piece, the culture and traditional heritage which connects the tribe with the islands are at risk while some important history have already gone.

Tozaka’s connection to the islands came along way since head hunting days and now the tales of head hunting days are partly gone. In the past, warriors of respective tribes fought to claim ownership of the islands and according to Tozaka, this was how his tribe conquered the islands.

A ridge of sandy beach full of life connecting these Islands is drowning. One can barely see the landscape underwater.

When he was a child, Tozaka used to travel to the inhabited islands with his parents on a Seagull Engine for a picnic every weekend.

65 year old Freedom Tozaka

“These islands are our lives, we are connected to these islands and what lives within. We are helpless as climate change robbed us without warning. We cannot do much to save these islands,” Tozaka said.

He said the islands’ landscape are getting smaller and there’s not much life within them, unlike in the 80s where people shared the paradise islands with the seabirds.

There is no official record showing the exact number of islands disappearing around Gizo in recent years but, 55 year old Patrick Vilaka has his own math.

Vilaka is a well-known boat driver around Gizo and he has been travelling around the islands for over 30 years.

“I think close to three small islands have perished recently around Gizo but people did not take this happening seriously due to lack of awareness.

“To me, many low laying islands are at risk. I’ve travelled around this province and I saw lots of island that are at risk. The islands that we visit today are just a top of this issue,” he said.

Evidences of the effect on the islands we visited were obvious. We show that the islands are getting smaller due to soil erosion caused by sea level rise. I’m curious about how one village I’ve visited earlier this year lived through these adversity.

A small island close to Bhurubhuru island eaten up by sea and will soon disappear in the next 7 to 10 years.

On our way back, I told the driver to stop at a village called Fishing Village. The name of the village say it all. These people depend entirely on sea resources to survive.

Fishing Village is less than five minutes’ drive from Gizo. The village is built on coral surrounded by muddy mangroves. Fifty two year old Emma Edau calls the place her home.

“I came here with my father and mother when I was eight. This place was full of mud, there was no land. My father with the support of my mother build this place with corals.

“It was hard work paid off by my parents for us to call home but there is another concern. We realised that the sea has invaded our land during high tides. It worsened when there is a storm. Sea level can reach up to the floor of my old kitchen,” she said.

Mrs Edau said finding sea foods such as sea shell and reef fish are also becoming difficult putting pressure on women who depend on easy catch to feed their families.

She said sea level rise has caused coral bleaching as a result of rise in sea temperature causing acidification in the mangroves killing few types of mud shells where women normally go and pick for their meal.

“We depend on sea resources for everything; our food and money among other things.

“Most women in my village are not employed so we normally sell fish at Gizo market to meet our needs.

“We pay our children fees, uniforms and also other household needs from money we get.

A house at Fishing Village during low tide.

“This is our life, there is no option or choice,” Edau said.

She said fishing has also be difficult as catch continues to decrease over the years.

Mrs Edau said men of her village have to travel far to catch enough fish to sell at the market.

Mrs Edau is originally from Malaita province but has been living in Western Province most of her life.

She called Fishing Village her home and as a mother she is desperate to relocate her family higher ground behind her village.

“Our village leaders have discussed this idea with the landowners but there is no green light for now. We hope landowners will allow us to relocate to their land in the future,” Mrs Edau said.

In July this year, the government announced that technical studies and community consultation for the development of relocation guidelines for low-lying atolls and artificial islands vulnerable to climate change will commence soon as preparation and logistic work is finalised.

The report states that International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has contracted an international group in partnership with the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Survey (MLHS) to develop the relocation guidelines

It is still unclear the communities that will be part of the relocation program.

Though Solomon Islands contributed very little to global emissions the clock is ticking for Edau and her family.

The islands we visited earlier are also risk sinking – meaning Tozaka will lost everything when that happens.

“This story was produced with the support of the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network”