A different sort of sea change……

Last year (2011) it became clear that the first casualty of climate change in Australia were the small islands in the Torres Strait between Queensland and Papua New Guinea.  Apart from natural compassion for the people, it seems to me that it is a good test case that would enable both Commonwealth and State Governments to face up to what bids fair to become a major issue in the next twenty or thirty years, and would enable guidelines to be set so those who will be affected in the future would have some sense of what to expect.

There are six small islands in the Torres Strait that are not much above sea level and are already being seriously affected by rising tides and climate change.  The largest called Saibai is home to 350 people and flooding tides are increasingly affecting their houses and are likely to affect vital infrastructure like the sewerage treatment plant soon.  Part of the island is so low that the water doesn't drain away and so it's become swampy and this has caused a sudden increase in malaria, a disease thought to have been eradicated in Australia.  The locals have been petitioning Canberra for years for a grant of over $200 million to build a sea wall to keep out rising tides, and there has been lots of talk but no action. 

It's happened before that a whole island has had to move for particular reasons. The people of St Kilda, (the tiny island in the North Sea at the top of Scotland and namesake for the bayside suburb where I live) were moved by the British government at the end of the 19th century.  There were even less of them than on Saibai

Because Saibai is so remote and there aren't many of them (and dare
I say it, they aren't white Australians) it's easy for most people to conclude that it's an open and shut case that these poor people simply have to move.  A seawall would be too expensive, may not be effective over time, and there aren't a lot of people affected anyway. They no doubt get welfare of different sorts but probably don't pay much in taxes and there's no real commercial activity from fishing.  And the control of malaria may prove not be possible with new strains of mosquitoes.  It's only logical that they have to move!

Anyone with any heart can empathise with their dilemma in not wanting to leave what must, in many ways be an idyllic place: but more importantly, it's their home, where they've always lived and where their ancestors are buried; their whole culture is bound up on that island.  But it's also clear that they don't have much political clout for all the above reasons;  just imagine the carry-on if these were Melburnians living on an idyllic island in the Yarra River near Abbotsford! 

But perhaps these aspects of the situation also make it possible for us, not only to be to be generous and treat the Saibai people with respect, and as there is no political heat in the situation, to use it as the ideal opportunity to grapple with a serious problem that is going to increasingly face us around the Bay and elsewhere in the near future. 

Where can they be relocated and who decides what is acceptable? 
How will they be compensated for the loss of their land, and how much?   They mostly live by fishing at the moment, should this be taken into account, does it mean they should be relocated on the coast somewhere?  Is it reasonable that the remains of their ancestors should also be moved as they would like?  What other measures should be taken, and what will they cost us? What can be afforded, what are the financial limits?  Who has the final say?

Such an exercise would not only set in train the relocation of these unfortunate Australians, but would force us to make legal and equitable decisions in principle that can eventually be applied to people in Mornington or Middle Park or wherever similar circumstances end up applying.  In my opinion it would be much easier to make these judgments in principle for the future without the political pressures that would affect decision making if the people immediately concerned lived in Sorrento for example.  We should grasp the nettle to make decisions in principle that will help guide actions in the future, and this very illustration of having to deal with real climate change might even have a salutary effect on politicians like Tony Abbot who give lip service about climate change but don't really believe yet that it poses a real problem.


Don Gazzard
April 2012