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Pacific islanders move to escape global warming

by: By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent    5 December 2005

Rising seas have forced 100 people on a Pacific island to move to higher ground in what may be the first example of a village formally displaced because of modern global warming, a U.N. report said on Monday.

With coconut palms on the coast already standing in water, inhabitants in the Lateu settlement on Tegua island in Vanuatu started dismantling their wooden homes in August and moved about 600 yards (meters) inland.

They could no longer live on the coast, Taito Nakalevu, a climate change expert at the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, told Reuters during a 189-nation conference in Montreal on ways to fight climate change.

So-called king tides, often whipped up by cyclones, had become stronger in recent years and made Lateu uninhabitable by flooding the village 4 to 5 times a year. We are seeing king tides across the region flooding islands, he said.

The U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) said in a statement that the Lateu settlement has become one of, if not the first, to be formally moved out of harm's way as a result of climate change.

The scientific panel that advises the United Nations projects that seas could rise by almost 3 feet (a meter) by 2100 because of melting icecaps and warming linked to a build-up of heat-trapping gases emitted by burning fossil fuels in power plants, factories and autos.

Many other coastal communities are vulnerable to rising seas, such as the U.S. city of New Orleans, the Italian city of Venice or settlements in the Arctic where a thawing of sea ice has exposed coasts to erosion by the waves.


Pacific Islanders, many living on coral atolls, are among those most at risk. Off Papua New Guinea, about 2,000 people on the Cantaret Islands are planning to move to nearby Bougainville island, four hours' boat ride to the southwest.

Two uninhabited Kiribati islands, Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea, disappeared underwater in 1999.

In Tegua, the dwellings are moving first. The chief has moved, he has to start the process, so his people are now following, Nakalevu said. A church would also be dismantled and moved inland.

Nakalevu said the rising seas seemed linked to climate change. It was unknown if the coral base of the island, about 12 square miles, might be subsiding. Most villagers rely on yams, beans and other crops grown on higher ground.

To help Lateu, Canada had provided $50,000 to build a system to collect and store up to 9,500 gallons (36,000 liters) of rain water to break dependence on springs by the coast.

In the Arctic, indigenous peoples in Shishmaref in Alaska and in Tuktoyaktuk in Canada were considering moving because of climate change, U.N. officials said.

The peoples of the Arctic and the small islands of this world face many of the same threats, Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's executive director, said in a statement.

The melting and receding of sea ice and the rising of sea levels, storms surges and the like are the first manifestations of big changes underway which eventually will touch everyone on the planet, he said.