"The island was further away than it is today."
Francis Pearson stands on a beach on Coconut Island, one of the 274 islands in the Torres Strait, 17 of which have permanent settlements. In a video produced by the Torres Strait Climate group, Pearson speaks to the camera, pointing out that the island’s beach used to stretch much further than it does today.
"We’ve experienced big loss here on our island, we’ve lost most of this beach, we’ve been worried we’re going to lose this road here," he says, looking around at a thin strip of beach that remains. The road behind him has clearly taken a pounding from waves and shows signs of erosion.
"How can we stop this?" he asks.
The people of the Torres Strait have been documenting the recent king tides that have swept through their villages. There’s video footage and photographs showing flood-like conditions in populated villages, of homes and schools inundated with water, of children playing in the street when the tide has risen to knee-level. This didn’t always happen, and residents are worried.
Torenzo Elisala is the Torres Strait Island Regional Council (TSIRC) member for the island of Dauan. As someone who lives in the Torres Strait he has noticed a change in recent years, and he is ready to attribute it to climate change.
"We’re seeing high-rising sea levels as a result of climate change," he says.
"These sea levels affect our ecosystem and the balance of life. It affects the way we plant and maintain our food. It affects our way of life. These tides are now coming in very, very high. It’s very unusual for them to be of this height. Usually it never comes this far, now every year it is getting higher."
Elisala explains that the king tides would normally inundate the beach and never reach the villages. People’s houses, gardens, buildings and infrastructure were well out of the path of the high tides. Today, when the king tide arrives, it goes beyond the beach and into the villages, inundating buildings, washing away gardens, weakening infrastructure, and causing an array of health concerns.
"In Dauan, the king tide only affects the lower-lying areas, so the majority of it is up in the north-west side of the island where most of the gardening is done because there isn’t any infrastructure built on that side of the island," he says.
"This area for gardening was handed down from generation to generation. It’s an area that people have dedicated themselves to maintaining."
Now, that very area is constantly under threat from unusually high tides and Elisala doesn’t know how much longer the people of the Torres Strait will be able to maintain their traditional lifestyles, their gardening methods that have been passed down through generations, and the food they eat.
"We’re trying to do things here to make our community sustainable and viable for the long run but we’re not too sure what future the next generation is going to have," he says.
"The time to do something is now, let’s not waste time when we can already see what the problem is."
Donna Green is a senior lecturer and researcher at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. She has authored many research papers on the impacts of climate change on Indigenous communities and says that even though it is difficult for scientists to absolutely state that anything observed is solely due to climate change, some patterns have been noted.
"What we can say is the causal models are projecting that there will be increased sea level rises and an increase in storm surges in the coming decades, and because many of the islands in the Torres Strait are low-lying, those kinds of impacts are very likely going to affect those islands in the coming years," Green says.
"Indeed, some of the increases that have been seen over the last five to 10 years such as erosion may also have a climate change component."
Claire O’Neill, a PhD researcher at the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre, also believes that scientists are unable to attribute specific events to climate change, but acknowledges that the high tides of the Torres Strait are a cause for concern.
"The Torres Strait has always gotten king tides and if you look at the top western islands they’re very low-lying and the communities there have always been prone to inundation," O’Neill says.
"So during the king tide they expect that, and the homes there are built on stilts. It’s something that the communities are used to dealing with. But they’re starting to see more of a strain on infrastructure and drainage that didn’t occur in the past, so it’s becoming more severe."
"It’s very hard to say how much the local sea level rise and erosion that comes with that is actually caused by climate change because the Torres Strait is a unique place," she says.
"It’s very difficult to understand what’s going on up there in terms of tides and where things are going because we don’t have a long history of recording measurements up there. What a lot of people are going by is community experience and what the locals have experienced in the past and what they’re starting to experience now. The trends are going with the climate change predictions, but it’s very difficult to separate how much of that is caused by climate change and how much is caused by local environmental stress."
But whether or not the changes have a link to climate change, both Green and O’Neill agree that the changes are adding a lot of stress to the communities that have never had to deal with this problem before.
"The intensity of the high tides are likely to impact the sewerage systems, the housing, the public buildings, but also indirectly it’s going to affect their culture and well-being because there will be a change in the marine ecosystem. Islanders are very much marine people, they get a lot of their food from the sea, and a lot of their cultural security is associated with the marine ecosystem, so that is also likely to change," says Green.
"One of the things the islands are concerned about is they have open [rubbish]tips, so when the inundation occurs the water can flow into the tip and from that there’s potentially a big public health issue to have rubbish floating around in the streets.
"The children can play in the water because it’s fun because the street is flooded, but they’re also playing in contaminated water. That can be quite a big public health issue, especially in a remote area because you may need to deal with an outbreak of something quite quickly. It’s quite difficult to deal with in a community that remote because they have limited medical expertise on the island."
O’Neill says that the high tides threaten the community’s ability to maintain their gardens as the salt water intrusions kill off any chance they have of growing a garden. Add to that, there’s the psychological stress of watching your home go under water again and again. O’Neill says not a lot of research has been conducted in the area of climate change’s impact on psychological health, but the deep connection that many Indigenous communities have to the land is likely to cause a lot of stress as the situation in the Torres Strait potentially worsens.
This is the first of a two-part series by Tracey Lien on the king tides in the Torres Strait.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.