Published: 19:00, January 29, 2024 | Updated: 21:35, January 29, 2024
Pacific islands’ woes worsening amid climate change concerns
By Karl Wilson in Sydney

Funafuti, the capital of the island nation state of Tuvalu, is seen from a Royal New Zealand airforce C130 aircraft as it approaches at Funafuti, Tuvalu, South Pacific, on Oct 13, 2011. (PHOTO / AP)

Despite dire warnings some low lying Pacific island nations may disappear as sea levels rise due to climate change, the population of these countries is expected to increase rather than decrease from 13 million to 20 million by 2050.

The findings are contained in a comprehensive report on Pacific islands’ population trends to 2050, released on Jan 9 by the University of Auckland as part of a Pacific islands-led research project on climate mobility.

The research looked at where and how climate-related events and environmental changes – such as cyclones, floods, drought, salination of soil and drinking water, heat stress, and sea-level rise – will impact the decision of people in the Pacific islands to “stay in place”, or to move within the region or beyond.

Many Pacific island nations such as Tuvalu, formerly known as the Ellice Islands, is expected to be one of the first countries in the world to disappear due to climate change

It found the great majority of Pacific islands’ people will still be adapting to climate change in their home country by 2050.

The study, funded with New Zealand’s climate finance, surveyed people across the Pacific islands in their local languages.

ALSO READ: WMO: Pacific island sea levels rising faster than global average

The researchers from the University of Auckland found that while many Pacific island residents are expected to move away to other countries, including New Zealand and Australia, their home populations are expected to grow much quicker over the next 30 years.

Many Pacific island nations such as Tuvalu, formerly known as the Ellice Islands, is expected to be one of the first countries in the world to disappear due to climate change.

Comprising nine islands midway between Australia and Hawaii, Tuvalu with a population of just over 11,000 has a landmass of just 26 square kilometers.

A report in The Guardian on June 27 last year said: “At the current rates of sea level rise, some estimates suggest that half the land area of the capital, Funafuti, will be flooded by tidal waters within three decades. By 2100, 95 percent of land will be flooded by periodic king tides, making it essentially uninhabitable.”

ALSO READ: Island nations blame rich countries for climate inaction

Professor Yvonne Underhill-Sem, co-lead of the University of Auckland research team, hopes the findings will help address the serious challenges of climate mobility.

“It is true that many low-lying atolls are increasingly affected by climate-related conditions like rising sea levels and coastal inundation,” she told China Daily.

She said Pacific island nations are working on a range of technological ways to protect and even expand some land into the future.

“They are also working on ways to retain their sovereign status even as their physical boundaries shrink,” Underhill-Sem said.

There are a range of possible mobility options including circular mobility involving New Zealand, Australia, and other larger Pacific countries, she said.

“There is a very strong desire to stay and retain a place called home, perhaps with a smaller population.”

ALSO READ: Study: Intense El Niño expected to speed up sea level rise

In November, Australia and Tuvalu announced a landmark treaty where Australia offered permanent residency to the people of Tuvalu.

Under the agreement, Tuvalu citizens will be allowed to live, study and work in Australia.

They would be able to access Australian education, health, and key income and family support. Although the exact number was not outlined in the agreement, it was widely reported the program will be open to 280 Tuvaluan citizens each year.

Underhill-Sem noted this is a proposed policy which has yet to be fully implemented.

“It is highly unlikely that the numbers offered permanent residence in Australia will be enough to mitigate the population momentum on the islands.”

ALSO READ: 'Death sentence': Low-lying states urge faster climate action at UN

She said many Pacific island countries which have allowed its citizens to participate in labor mobility programs are increasingly concerned about the social and economic effects of the loss of mostly able-bodied citizens. So they are also reducing the numbers able to travel.

“This is the case for Tonga and Samoa,” she said.

“Other countries like the Cook Islands, Nuie and Tokelau can travel to New Zealand, and onto Australia under special constitutional arrangements.”

The director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury, Professor Steven Ratuva, said: “Climate mobility will and has been a major issue in the Pacific.”

Some communities from the bigger countries like Fiji and Papua New Guinea have relocated inland and to other less prone locations, he told China Daily.

READ MORE: Island nations plead for quick climate action

“Fiji has in previous years resettled migrants from Ocean Islands in Kiribati and Tuvalu and is home to many Pacific people,” Ratuva said.

It has also opened its doors to other Pacific migrants. Kiribati has bought a substantial piece of land in Fiji for potential relocation in the future,” he said.

He said Nauru was approached by Australia to sign a similar agreement as Tuvalu but pushed back on that.

“The unethical aspect of this, as we have seen in the case of Tuvalu, is that climate resettlement can be used as a leverage for strategic access to those island states and worse still, control of their security and sovereignty.”