The last month has seen a variety of press, blogging and talkback responses to a current affairs article on climate change that screened on the Sunday showon New Zealand’s TV1. Sunday featured footage from a sea flood on the atoll of Takuu, 250 km Northeast of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. This footage is part of a larger documentary, There Once was an Island: Te Henua e Noho, that I am producing with director Briar March. Our film follows the atoll’s community as they consider whether to stay on Takuu or prepare to relocate to the mainland. The film also considers the possible impact of climate change for people living in low-lying areas so we were happy to be included in a wider discussion on this topic.
The situation Takuu faces is a complex one but this complexity has not been fully addressed in the commentary I’ve seen or heard since the article aired. In particular there has been a heavy reliance on a factually incorrect article on Wikipedia (now updated). This article claimed that the atoll was “sinking” and stated tectonic activity as one of two reasons for this phenomenon. In fact, reasons for the sea flooding, erosion and salination that the community can see happening on the atoll are not clear. This is largely due to the fact that, until Briar and I took oceanographer John Hunter and geomorphologist Scott Smithers to the island, no one had examined the local situation from a scientific perspective. Their research indicates that tectonic activity is not contributing to what is happening on the atoll. This begs the question – what exactly is? And why so much misinformation?
Having been on the ground in Bougainville, it is apparent that lack of research in the area is due to poverty and the extant political situation that goes with it. No one can pay for research to be done and there are more immediate social concerns. In other words the negative impacts of floods and salty gardens on the Takuu community are exacerbated because the atoll communities of Bougainville, at the very bottom of an impoverished heap, are unable to get adequate infrastructural support to ensure that basic standards of living are met on a continuous basis. Bougainville is still recovering from the long-running civil conflict of the 1980s and 1990s while PNG’s national government is apparently unable to help.
This meant that, during the floods on Takuu, there was no early warning, no reliable news from the outside, no way of understanding, even with two scientists and a satellite phone, what had caused the situation. The nearest we could guess was that a large storm to the northwest had caused waves that increased the level of an especially high tide, at a point in the La Nina cycle where water levels were already very high. In any case, there was no hope of rescue. The local government was unable to send a boat to help, and when we left, six days later, no relief supplies were on their way. While we were shooting in Bougainville just after leaving Takuu, the boat that services the atolls put out to sea but lost its engine and was adrift, full of passengers, for two days until it could be located and towed to port. It was some time before a boat did finally make it to the atoll with the food that the people needed.
About a month ago we heard that the people from several atolls, including Takuu, have signalled to the Bougainville government that they would like to be considered for relocation. With current levels of financing and the political issues surrounding land-ownership after the civil conflict, this will take years, but the decision itself speaks volumes. When we left the island in the wake of the 2008 flood, people once determined to raise their children on Takuu were beginning to think they had to move for the safety of those children. It now appears some people have made a firm decision to go, knowing this will eventually spell the end of their cultural identity, their language and their way of life. In his editor’s preface to Richard Moyle’s recent musical ethnography of Takuu, Dr David Hanlon noted prophetically, “It would prove a sad irony indeed if this first full ethnography of Takuu were also the last.”
I’m very aware that it would make for a simpler, more easily understood storyline to say that Takuu is being swamped due to climate change, or alternatively that this process has nothing to do with the atoll’s situation. However at this point it’s not possible to take such a didactic position – not enough research has been done on the present state of the atoll and the future is notoriously difficult to predict. What I am attempting instead is a reasoned look at the available information.
Although analysis is still ongoing, Scott Smithers’ initial observations suggest there has been a relative drop in sea level at Takuu over the last few thousand years. His feeling is based on the fact that remnants of a higher reef flat, - most likely of mid to late Holocene in age - perhaps 5000 years old – occur and are elevated around a metre above its modern equivalent. This suggests a relative sea level fall over that period, and there is no evidence of significant relative sea level rise as would be expected if the islands had been subsiding. The geomorphic evidence from Takuu therefore suggests that active tectonic subsidence is not, as I mentioned previously, in action. The comparatively recent past has, in fact, shown a drop in sea level around the island.
John Hunter has looked extensively at sea-level rise around the world and is looking to the future. He believes that the kind of flooding events that the community experienced while we were on Takuu are likely to become more common as the earth’s sea level rises with climate change. This is not all bad - these floods would normally build the atoll up by washing sediment onto it, and living on Takuu could be managed so that homes and gardens are not destroyed. John also believes, however, that if ocean acidification takes its toll on the coral reefs, this replenishment with sediment may not happen. The only solutions for the islanders would then be "engineering-type" ones such as mechanically building up the island and beaches with local sediment. These measures could well prove expensive, although there is no ready information on the relative costs of all the different options, but John believes it would be desirable if all options were considered before there is any wholesale relocation of the population.
From my perspective however, the unfortunate reality is that Takuu has no access to early warning or rescue when a really big storm comes along. The community have no money or support to build the atoll up or change their housing to protect themselves. The poverty they find themselves in inevitably makes relocation the most logical, if heartbreaking, option. Sadly this is also true for other atolls in the Bougainville region, and doubtless for many other poor communities in low-lying areas around the world.
I am a filmmaker, and certainly not a climate change scientist. I came to be making a film that touches on climate change because I could see a compelling story about a group of people and what is happening in their lives right now. The immediacy of their situation and the flooding event we shot on the island reflect the focus that the news media usually takes – things that are topical, sudden or a development of an earlier story. But climate change of any kind is usually a long process – longer than our personal experience or living memory, longer than the interval between floods, or hot spells or unusual typhoons. It’s certainly longer than the production period on a film and is extremely difficult to predict. Like so many of the climate change deniers I hear on talkback or read on the blogs, I am not an expert on the complexities of the science. However, when I consider what I know, I tend to believe that the balance of probability cannot be in our favour. If my pessimism is founded, places like Takuu – unique, powerless and with a tiny carbon footprint – will be the ones who suffer first. And there’s a terrible irony in that.