Engulfed by the sea: the loss and damage from climate change

People from the Solomon Islands are experiencing profound loss and damage from climate change every day. Guest blogger Gladys Habu calls on the global community to recognise these losses, and act.

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Insight by 
Gladys Habu
Gladys Habu is a pharmacist at the Solomon Islands National Referral Hospital
18 November 2020
Aerial view of Honiara, Solomon Islands

Honiara, the capital city of Solomon Island, has seen 41 tropical cyclones passing within 400km, causing devastating damage (Photo: copyright Guus Schuijl)

I remember the first time I noticed the real, visible impacts of climate change. It was December 2009 and I was 14. My family and I were out in our little boat, visiting our beloved island called Kale.

With its white sandy beaches, clear waters and lush forests, Kale was a jewel between the ocean and the sky. It was a much-loved spot for people living on the Northwest of the Solomon Islands’ Isabel Province and a significant part of our cultural heritage.

My grandfather and his family lived here decades ago. They had a big family home and a garden where they cultivated root crops. Mangroves hugged the coastline, home to mud clams, crabs and more. People fished aplenty, turtles came ashore to lay their eggs, and the megapode birds nested in great numbers.

But as we approached Kale that day, I realised the island was threatened – slowly disappearing before my eyes.

An island

The island of Kale in 2009 (Photo: copyright Gladys Habu)

Fast forward to 2014 and Kale was completely submerged underwater. The beautiful life and culture that once thrived there, now engulfed by the sea.

Sea level rise and other climate change impacts took away an irreplaceable part of our livelihood. Sadly, my children will never know the island I loved so dearly.

Washed away

Kale has gone but our losses do not stop there. Climate change continues to ravage many of our coastal communities as the rising sea erodes our shores.

We do what we can to limit the damage – building stone walls along the coast to protect what’s left, planting new mangroves and constructing new houses on higher stilts with semi-permanent material over traditional (‘bush’) material. But these efforts to adapt have their limits.

Wall made of stones that divides land and sea

Locals built walls to protect the island from the increasing sea levels (Photo: copyright Gladys Habu)

Many of our houses have been damaged, displacing families from their normal ways of life. Displacement brings problems relating to land rights. In the Solomon Islands, land is owned either through the patrilineal or the matrilineal system and passed on from generation to generation.

Frequent moving of houses affects the traditional lineage norms and leads to social conflict within the community. With the limited land we have, it is becoming very difficult to find space for new homes. For many Solomon Islanders, relocating is not as simple as just getting up and leaving.

Climate change is also destroying our mangroves, the delicate ecosystems they support and the biodiversity that flourish there. One example is the mangrove mud clams – called Keu in my father’s dialect (Zabana) – a common source of protein our people rely on so heavily.

As rising seas overwhelm our shores and devastate our mangroves, our Keu is struggling. Areas that once yielded plentiful harvests are now barren.

Poisoned by salt

As the shoreline recedes, nearby freshwater systems are becoming mixed with salt water. People are forced to travel great distances to get clean water for drinking and cooking. These trips are usually made in a wooden canoe that leaves those venturing out at the mercy of our increasingly unpredictable weather.

Between 1969 and 2010, 41 tropical cyclones passed within 400km of the capital (Honiara). This is an average of one cyclone per season, but you can never say when a cyclone will hit. It’s not always safe to paddle far out from home.

These are just some examples of the damage and loss of climate change, and the devastating and far reaching impacts they have on our people.

I’ve just turned 25, and yesterday I went out to where Kale used to be. As we drew nearer by boat, I saw one remaining dead stump, still intact. The terns were all lined up on this last exposed bit of the island. We were able to drive our outboard motor right over the top of where our beautiful white sandy beaches once were.

Branches poke through the water, showing where an island used to be

The island of Kale in 2014, submerged under the sea (Photo: copyright Gladys Habu)

The life of Kale is now trapped under the turquoise ocean surface. Witnessing a whole island go into non-existence – it all feels so surreal. I am left questioning my own childhood memories of this wonderful island. Could we have done anything more to slow down or even prevent this loss?

My call to the world: recognise our losses

It saddens and angers me that we face these huge daily challenges, while millions around the world are fuelling the destruction we suffer, yet their own lives remain relatively unaffected.

The Solomon Islands, like many other Pacific Island countries, have made the tiniest of contributions to global warming, and the climate change and sea level rise that have resulted. Yet we wake up to face the negative impacts every single day.

And science tells us things are going to get worse: locked-in emissions set an unavoidable course of warming that will lead to sea-level rises at an unrelenting pace for years to come, as well as temperature rises and ocean acidification.

In the Solomon Islands we are fighters. We do what we can with the little we have to adapt and minimise further loss and damage. But we can’t do this alone.  

We need support from the global community. I appeal for voices from lesser represented countries directly affected by climate change to be amplified.

Let our experiences be told truthfully and loudly to those far and wide. The very real losses and damages from climate change must be recognised nationally and internationally, and policies put in place to make action, in every country, happen.

About the author

Gladys Habu is a pharmacist at the Solomon Islands National Referral Hospital. Also Miss Solomon Islands 2019/20, she is a UNICEF Pacific Supporter and supports the work of the Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change

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