23 November 2011

Cook Islands PM speaks on alarming effects of climate change

Danger posed by climate change, alarming

At a speech in Noumea, (Cook Islands) Prime Minister Hon Henry Puna told delegates the danger imposed by climate change on the Cook Islands was alarming. Puna was one of two political leaders invited as special guests speakers for the 7th SPC Conference in Noumea which began on Monday. The conference theme was ‘Climate Change and Food Security – challenges and solutions in the Pacific Islands countries and territories.'  Puna was joined by the Chair of the 7th Conference, Hon John Silk, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Republic of Marshall Islands.  The President of New Caledonia, His Excellency Mr Harold Martin opened the conference, for Ministers from the 22 Pacific Island Countries and Territories including American Samoa, Tonga, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Samoa.

Statement by Hon. Henry Puna
Prime Minister
Cook Islands

In 2010, the Pacific Small Island Developing States five-year review of the Mauritius Strategy for Further Implementation of the Barbados Programme of Action for Sustainable Development of SIDS (MSI+5) found that since the Rio Meeting in 1992 our vulnerability has increased whilst our capacity to cope has not. This has been due in no small part to the additional pressures of climate change, climate variability and sea-level rise which have been compounded by the international fuel, food and financial crises. These new pressures have exacerbated those that were identified in 1992. 

We share much in common. However, we each have our own particular challenges and opportunities, many of which stem from our largest shared resource, the Pacific Ocean. We have, are, and will continue forever to exist in a Blue World, the vast Pacific Ocean, which comprises over 95% of our sovereign territory and over which we have stewardship in the interest of the Global Commons.

Socially, the context of widespread small communities on generally small if not tiny islands provided, and still largely does provide, the basis for our traditional and cultural social fabric. The ocean feeds us (and a large part of the global community), it endangers us (cyclones, storm surges, and tsunamis), and underpins the many challenges we face (isolation from markets, high cost of imports and exports, cost of internal transport) and opportunities they have for economic development (tourism, fisheries, seabed minerals). 

Pacific Leaders have stated quite clearly that climate change is singularly the biggest threat facing our region now and into the future. I fear a recent report I read about over the weekend that indicates that greenhouse gas emissions may exceed the worst case scenario of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report in 2007. Unfortunately, this report over the weekend indicates that the problem is pretty close to running away from us.

For over a decade the science tells us that without dramatic reductions in green house gas emissions the futures of our island nations is under threat. The current and impending impacts of climate change will affect every aspect of our very survival into the future. 

The Cook Islands, like many of your countries has made great efforts to advance our data gathering, understanding and knowledge in order to enhance our preparedness to build our resilience to mitigate against disasters particularly now resulting from climate change. We are attempting to consider our vulnerabilities from national, regional and international perspectives, and quite frankly, what we have learnt is most alarming, and is going to require a concerted effort of those of us here today as well as many others in order to reduce the risks across our development agenda these vulnerabilities bring. 

Colleagues, let me now highlight the issue of “The Level of Acceptable Risk”, and of course who is responsible for determining the level of acceptable risk. It is within this context of risk that I will address our collective task here at this 7th Conference of the SPC the them of which is “Climate Change and Food Security – Managing risks for sustainable development”. 
There is no such circumstance as “No Risk”. Having accepted that as a reality, the task at hand is to “Know Risk”. In other words it is our collective responsibility to work together to assemble all the necessary data and information leading to knowledge and a better understanding of risk, and ultimately the determination of the level of acceptable risk. 

Who determines the level of acceptable risk? The answer of course differs around the region. For sure it is not the SPC’s responsibility. The SPC’s task is to provide the platform for informing all stakeholders, including through dialogue such as we are now engaged in here at this Conference. 

The Cook Islands, like your countries and territories, recognise that to manage risks will require an integrated approach across the development agenda and significant and appropriate adaptation actions are required to respond to the challenges posed by climate change and food security. Without a doubt, our own Joint National Action Plan for Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction highlights the impacts of climate change on the livelihoods of our people including the impacts of climate change on Food Security and thereby resulting in disaster risk reduction. 

While having a common reliance in the Pacific on our fragile and limited natural resources, the Cook Islands’ vulnerable sectors have some variation from the rest of the Pacific. In our case being the almost entire reliance of our livelihoods on a limited set of socio-economic activities led by tourism, pearl farming and especially subsistence agriculture and fisheries. These sectors in turn are proving to be most sensitive to current and anticipated parameters impacted by climate change including temperature increases, sea level rise, ocean acidity, changes in seasonal weather patterns and more frequent and intense extreme events including cyclones and droughts.

In July my Government hosted the 3rd Regional Integrated Water Resources Management Meeting organised by the SOPAC Division of the SPC. Our attention was drawn to the impacts not only of cyclones but also droughts on the security (or rather insecurity) of our fresh water supplies.

In November we hosted the international World Meteorological Climate and Fisheries workshop, which emphasised what we already knew – that climate influences where and how productive our fisheries are – but also brought together new research that suggests that our collective regional fishing practices can make the difference between whether our large ocean of resources can cope with climate change. 

The big challenge it seems, is that we are not just facing one impact of climate change, but several in combination. 

The declaration on 28th September of a State of Emergency by Tuvalu in response to extreme drought conditions on Nukulaelae and Funafuti and rapidly deteriorating conditions on other outer islands has provide an opportunity for us all to reflect on this matter of drought. We now know other islands including some in the Cook Islands are close to if not in fact near to a state of emergency. 

Put simply, we need to do business better. 

Agriculture in the Cook Islands has suffered frequently from the effects of droughts while farmers have also observed changes in the timing of harvesting. Many attribute this to changes in the climate, and in particular rainfall. Many of our farmers since the time of our ancestors have used phases of the moon and climate seasons - the Arapo – as an almanac calendar that guides fishing and planting activities. This Arapo knowledge that has been passed down to successive generations, now with climate change seems to be out of phase. 

In regards to our reefs, I have been advised there are projections that we will reach a tipping point within the next 30-40 years after which our reefs will die permanently. The impact of this on our food security will be phenomenal and this is an unacceptable risk.

At the interface between the land and sea we are apprehensive about sea level rise causing salt water intrusion into growing areas, especially when combined with extreme events. For example, cyclones have destroyed entire taro plantation areas on our atoll islands of the Northern Cooks with the intrusion of saltwater into the groundwater lens. It takes many years before taro can again be reintroduced to the island. 

Increases in air temperature and other climatic changes can also lead to increased incidence of pests and disease which are likely to threaten agriculture. An example of this is the potato white fly which has become a concern in the Cook Islands most likely as a result of periods of warmer wetter conditions. We are looking to the region to help us with biosecurity and research on controlling such outbreaks.

In an environment where it is not possible to get climate related private sector insurance for either extreme events with associated loss of income, or for slower onset loss of land and productivity, risk management and transfer options are key tools that will likely only be feasible with regional and international cooperation, especially from the SPC with its now very broad mandate across almost all sectors of development .

The Cook Islands continues to face a higher cost and burden for increasing impacts of climate change on food security. While addressing these impacts are a priority, there are other also extremely important and competing priorities, such as health and education. 

Therefore we are in need of much greater, predictable and accessible, financial and technical support from our international partners to address this problem that is largely not of our doing, yet undermines our achievement of our development priorities. We have heard much about increasing climate finance but have not yet seen implementation on the ground.

We will also be taking this message to COP 17 in Durban this time next month. We will also be taking this message to the Rio+20 Meeting next June. In Rio we will be urging the world to recognise that the “Special Case” for SIDS has indeed not gone away though the context has changed over the past 20 years. Issues of isolation and lack of capacity remain as does the necessity that we are by endowment of Mother Nature required to do business in a Blue World. We need the support of all our partners to manage the risks in order to build our resilience and capacity to cope.

In concluding, my Government is moving toward a coordinated approach to addressing climate change through legislative, policy, and sector level activities, which in turn will assist the Cook Islands to cope with a changing climate. With others here today we look forward to seeing real progress in finding solutions, so our next meeting can focus on the challenges in implementing those solutions!

Climate Change - A Rising Sea Threatens Pacific Islands

Rousbeh Legatis
Inter Press Service

NEW YORK (IPS) - As world leaders gear up to spend the coming weeks in South Africa haggling over economically bearable cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is already exacerbating environmental conditions and threatening the lives and livelihoods of thousands of Pacific Islanders.

Diversity characterises the Pacific region, with its approximately 30,000 islands – of which 1,000 are considered to be populated – scattered across the world's largest ocean, which covers nearly a third of the earth's surface. 

"Right now, sea level rise is a reality but also a phenomenon which currently occurs in millimetres each year," pointed out John Silk, minister of foreign affairs of the Marshall Islands, at a conference in May at Columbia Law School in New York. 

"But the millimetres are turning into centimetres and there are inarguable risks of long-term sea level rise of a meter or much more." 

Long before small island states might find themselves submerged, another possible outcome of rising sea levels is that islands "are left barren, (or) uninhabitable", reckoned Peniamina Leavai of the Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change Project (PACC). 

The situation and living conditions of inhabitants of the Pacific Islands vary greatly across the region, as they are shaped by the financial resources' availability, geography, technology and the affluence of the population. 

"The rate at which these affected areas become uninhabitable will also fall in a wide range, from already happening now, to happening in a couple of months, years, and in 20 years' time and more," Leavai explained to IPS. 

Yet environmental changes, accelerated by climate change, already severely affect the livelihoods of people in the Pacific. 

"High tides are frequent and continue to wash away our shorelines," said Council of Elders member Ursula Rakova, about the 2,700 families living on the Carteret islands, 86 kilometres away form Papua New Guinea's (PNG) main island Bougainville. 

"Our biggest concern is that one fine day, a king tide will simply sweep over the islands and most or all people will be washed away without any trace," she told IPS. Recently, one of the islands was divided in half by rising waters. 

The islands, lying 1.2 metres above sea level, have lost a significant area of arable land in a traditional culture where people's livelihoods are based on fishing and harvesting seasonal crops, even as the population grows. 

"The land is becoming less and less and the people find it harder to make gardens to sustain themselves," Rakova said. 

To address and adapt to the changed environmental conditions, the Council of the Elders developed and implemented what is called an autonomous adaption strategy by relocating and resettling their islanders in safer grounds. 

Rakova founded the organisation Tulele Peisa, which means "sailing the waves on our own", for this purpose. The organisation coordinates the relocation of the islanders to host communities. 

Two families to date have resettled to PNG's Marau islands and the move of another eight families is planned. While the international community is responding positively to their cause, Rakova emphasised that the government's reaction remains "very slow and does not set its priorities right". 

"The PNG Government responded to our call in October 2007 with PGK 2 million [about 700,000 U.S. dollars at the time] to the Carteret's Relocation Program, and the Bougainville administration has not since that time given a penny of that money to our organisation to support us in building homes for the Carteret's families," Rakova added. 

Meanwhile, Tokelau, Tuvalu and the Cook Islands currently suffer from drought conditions constituting a state of emergency, say experts who have been working intensively for decades to confront negative consequences of climate-induced changes in the Pacific region. 

They warn that the situation will only worsen if global climate policymaking follows a business-as-usual approach. 

In Tuvalu, where groundwater is unsafe due to high salinity and pollution, the drinking water scarcity could be further aggravated. There, rainfall is primary natural source for reservoirs, while accelerated sea level rise could cause the intrusion of seawater. 

This situation could easily result in social tensions between the affected population living on the main island, Funafuti, and islanders seeking drinking water who have migrated to Tuvalu's capital. 

More extreme and unusually frequent weather events like cyclones or tidal surges, driven by accelerated sea level rise, cause coastal erosion and force people to move inland to find new sources of livelihood. 

Samoa's coastlines, for example, have eroded from a few to 80 meters, and people have relocated inland where territory is already partitioned. Disputes over customary lands will likely intensify. 

"Picture the waves going past your home five meters inland from the shore, every morning and evening… This isn't your mansion. These are simple thatched roof shelters, with the risk of snakes, wallabies and fire ants," explained Leavai. 

Traditional knowledge about winds, seasons, rain patterns, the time at which mangroves can be crossed and what kind of clouds to look out for have become unreliable for the population, due to developments induced by climate change. 

Recently, in what was supposed to be monsoon season with typical knee-high flooding, some islands instead found themselves in a drought season. 

"People were experiencing dust, pigs killing banana trees for the water in trunks, and being robbed of their already withering food gardens by their neighbours, while wallabies and pythons decided to go beyond the borders of the jungle and into human settlements searching for food and water," described Leavai. 

In the face of these changes, local and regional response strategies have been formulated over time, and policy and decision-makers have been provided with information from lessons learned on the ground. 

But despite these very visible consequences of climate change in the Pacific, international development partners and donor countries have proven to be slow in increasing their efforts for finding a global solution for this global problem.