This is the second of a two-part series by Tracey Lien on the rising tides of the Torres Strait. Read the first part here.
In 2011, the Torres Strait received $22 million in funding from the federal government to build sea walls. Federal Member for Leichhardt Warren Entsch described this as a step towards helping the Torres Strait deal with the impacts of climate change.
The bill, passed in August, ensured that the money would be committed to assist in protecting the island communities from rising sea levels.
"There is substantial evidence of continued flooding on the outer islands due to king tides, and the success of having this motion accepted will ensured that we don’t see this beautiful part of the Torres Strait devastated again," Entsch said back in August.
So what is a sea wall and is it the solution to the Torres Strait’s climate change problems?
In the case of the Torres Strait, sea walls are structures (often made of concrete) that are strategically built on parts of an island, often on the beach, to stop water from flowing in and inundating parts of an island during particularly high tides. A number of islands in the Torres Strait have been identified as being the most affected and being very vulnerable to inundation.
O’Neill says that while certain communities in the Torres Strait do have sea walls in place, most were built in the 1970s and have begin falling apart.
"They’re definitely falling to pieces and you can see huge cracks in the cement. Some of them aren’t long enough and need to be extended, and it’s all very case-specific. Every island is different," she says.
In the Torres Strait Island Regional Authority’s paper (pdf), "Torres Strait Climate Change Strategy, 2010-2013", six islands are identified in the action plan as needing urgent attention. These include Boigu and Saibai islands, which need upgraded sea walls to protect cemeteries and an increase in water supply and sewerage manholes to reduce the likelihood of inundation, Warraber, which needs an extended sea wall to protect a church site, and Iama, which requires an upgraded sea wall along with the construction of offshore protection.
O’Neill says that sea walls are only the first step in dealing with the rising sea levels in the Torres Strait. Alone, the walls are not enough.
"Sea walls are critical to protect existing infrastructure and development that is still going on those islands, like dams and expensive infrastructure — the community needs to protect those at all cost," she says.
"I think at the moment the adaptation strategy up there has been focusing on the physical, making sure the communities are physically safe, but there are other elements of adaptation as well. A good adaptation strategy shouldn’t be just to protect physical infrastructure, and that’s the stuff that the sea walls doesn’t necessarily respond to, so they do need more."
"We need a much bigger picture thinking of all that," O’Neill says.
Last year the Mayor of the Torres Strait, Fred Gela, posed a video question to the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, on the TV program Q&A. He asked:
"The people of the Torres Strait could very well be the world’s first climate change refugees. The Torres Strait is the eyes and ears of the north. It is a significant region of Australia in more ways than one and is in jeopardy of being destroyed. Help has been requested time and again to assist in preventing the devastating effects of climate change but unfortunately — our own government has not come to our aid. Why have we been continually ignored — and can you see any contribution being made as a result of the carbon tax?"
While Mayor Gela did not receive a particularly comprehensive response from the Prime Minister, his question was one that many people of the Torres Strait have had to think about in recent times: will it get bad enough that they will have to leave?
Abo Mooka is the divisional manager of Dauan island and a Torres Strait local. She has noticed the tides rising higher and higher year after year and she fears for her neighbouring islands, which are much lower-lying than Dauan.
"It is possible that some islands might go under water. It is very possible," Mooka says.
"For my neighbouring islands, they’re flat islands, and when the king tide comes up the water comes from both ways. These islands are small islands, they’re coral islands, and if the king tide comes it just rushes through the island. There is nothing to stop the sea from coming in."
Mooka says that over the past two years the king tides have been getting higher and many of her neighbouring islands are scared. She says it would be incredibly sad if anyone had to leave their island homes, but she doesn’t know what the solution is.
"You can’t really guess when these things will happen," she says.
"They just happen unexpectedly and you don’t really have a plan, you have to just do something at that time."
Is there anything she thinks the government can do?
"It’s really best if the government comes to the island during the king tide and see for themselves how the people are affected by it."
The term "climate change refugees" is a contentious one. It is seen by many as the absolute last resort, but it doesn’t mean that the people of the Torres Strait don’t think about leaving.
Councillor Elisala says that relocation would be absolutely devastating for the Torres Strait’s island communities.
"It gets very bad for some of the islands. It’s not a joke. These are people’s lives we’re talking about here. It’s life-threatening and it feels like our future is going to be hopeless in the end," he says.
"What we would like to see is the government work with the local governments to work out short term and long term plans. We need the money to develop, but it’s more to do with asking the traditional owners because they have that knowledge of that land and the flow of the water. They live here, they’ve been living here for so many years and what the communities really want is for the government to listen to them."
"Each island has its own personality and its own issues and separate ideas and traditions — the eastern side of the Torres Strait is different to the western side — you can’t just have a blanket policy for the Torres Strait when the reality is the areas are all different. The government should be talking to individual communities, that’s when the government will be most effective in rolling out money to build sea walls and other infrastructure."
The government has committed $22 million to the construction of sea walls, but this is only a first step. There has been no word on what the next step will be, and with the Torres Strait not even receiving a mention in this year’s Climate Change Commission’s "The Critical Decade" report (pdf), Councillor Elisala is worried.
"I don’t think anybody will want to leave the islands because that’s leaving their personality behind," he says.
"Our home makes us who we are. Once that’s taken away it takes away your dignity, your respect, your identity, your culture, and all is lost in that. After that, it’s just hopeless."
This is the second of a two-part series by Tracey Lien on the rising tides of the Torres Strait. Read the first pa
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