18 year-old Chenxi Zhang wins the Harbinger Prize in Reporting
October 6, 2023
Disappearing in the Pacific. Their Islands are sinking, yet we can barely hear calls for help
To most, climate change is a mere string of statistics. Yes, everyone seems to know that around 20% of the Amazon rainforest has vanished due to rapid deforestation.
News on climate change may even break the hegemony politics hold on the headlines, on the rare occasion that rogue wildfires strike Maui or countries decide to make yet another rudimentary vow to curb carbon emissions. While it is undoubtedly marked as one of the greatest issues the world has to face as a resounding “code red”, most of us are still largely apathetic to the issue, doing very little in our daily lives to alleviate the situation.
After all, if the effects of climate change are liminal to us, how should we feel a sense of urgency, and what can catalyse actual change?
What if I told you, somewhere more peripheral on the World Map, that climate change has already sunk many undocumented islands in the Pacific Region?
Most of us only associate these islands with idyllic images found on the Internet: azure blue waters that stretch boundlessly, seagulls loafing about, or arching palm trees marking the shoreline that contributes to a paradise for repose. Yet, we know very little about Cyclone Winston which left tens of thousands of people in Fiji homeless and robbed everything from these poor islanders.
Many of us know very little about the unprecedented rise of sea levels of about 25 cm to 58 cm which threatens the very bedrock of existence for these low-lying island states.
Even an entire nation – Tuvalu – is projected to be completely engulfed by seawater in the next few years, evaporating its 3000-year history at once. To aggravate the situation, these small island states have to bear the disproportionate brunt of climate change impacts despite only being responsible for 0.03% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In stark contrast, most of the industrialised nations that contribute much more to carbon emissions watch on uncaringly.
Why should this matter to us if there are only 2.3 million residents of the Pacific Island states – a trifling sum juxtaposed against the world’s seven billion people? Certain Pacific nations, like Fiji, attract significant amounts of tourists from all around the world due to their pearl-white sandy beaches, which makes them ideal for a quick getaway. Yet, this highlights the tragic irony of the situation.
Beyond the idealised mirage, the island is constantly plagued by extreme weather conditions and coastal erosion which threaten its rich biodiversity. It may cease to be a tourist attraction in a few years, losing its aesthetic appeal entirely.
Furthermore, the Pacific populations are heavily reliant on their immediate environment for sustenance and livelihood. Primary sectors remain the backbone of these economies, being a major source of jobs and contributing 15% to 30% of the GDP. Yet agricultural and fishery sectors are often subject to the whims of natural disasters and climate change, causing major fluctuations in yield and huge threats to food security.1
Furthermore, with rising sea temperatures and the deteriorating health of coral reef ecosystems proliferating ciguatera fish poisoning, the islanders are extremely vulnerable to contracting disease. However devastating this may seem, it is far from the worst problem that climate change poses to the region.
With their homes practically unlivable, many of these islanders have little choice other than to migrate to their neighbouring countries like New Zealand or the US.
Compelled by their immediate circumstances to abandon their roots, the rich culture of over 1750 unique languages and their inimitable practices stands to be lost as the islanders get assimilated into foreign territories.
In Kiribati, tradition holds that the placentas of the baby ought to be buried to reflect the intimacy of islanders with nature. A part of their identity is lost if they leave behind their cultural roots. Their homeland means so much to them, yet the narratives of these islanders rarely gain the spotlight amidst the dampening, pessimistic statistics tainting the land they call home.
If the world had gotten to hear their stories, perhaps we would have taken action much earlier.
Kylamarie Rodriquez from Samoa defies the odds in her family as the first to pursue higher education in Environmental Management at the University of South Pacific. Her motivation to study this degree stems from her firsthand interaction with climate change on her small island, where Cyclone Evan and Cyclone Gary caused extensive carnage in the past decade.
These traumatic events have shaken up her hometown and caused significant disruption to facilities like the airport and power supply systems. She wanted to find tangible solutions to stop the shower of dust and debris in the wake of these disasters. Gaining a deeper technical understanding of her environment through her education, she had many ideas for more efficient allocation of natural resources to protect her home.
Being a pioneer in addressing climate change issues, she is a symbol of hope for many Samoan youths.
Ms. Hela Tauhehe Teao’s journey to tertiary education is marred by many tribulations that nearly caused her to give up on her dreams. Yet, these pose only mere obstacles in her epic as she eventually succeeds in completing her degree in Agricultural Science.
Amidst the tumultuous times of COVID-19, she is forced to return to her Tokelau, a resource-scarce territory in New Zealand. This inhibited her access to quality academic resources, hindering her successful graduation in 2021.
Despite her humble upbringing, her family relentlessly encourages her to continue pursuing her education. As she continues to strive for greater heights in terms of education, she hopes that her story can be a source of encouragement to other young students in the Pacific: that their potential cannot be limited by their immediate environments.
These girls are not alone. Many young Pacific Islanders come forth with their optimistic suggestions, which factor in the unique characteristics of their environment. The leaders of Pacific nations turn to ecosystem-based adaptation2, which increases the resilience of their environment against adverse climate change impacts.
Existing initiatives include the Million Mangroves project in Tonga which enlarges the mangrove ecosystem, alleviating coastal erosion and preventing seawater from getting inland.
With burgeoning development in technology, there are many possible solutions to improve food security that have been made more vulnerable due to climate change. Vanuatu has successfully harvested Golden Yam after 15 years of complex research, and a local, Ailani, speculated that it could be a viable food security solution.
While farming technologies are a relatively nascent concept in most Pacific nations, the vision of an agro-solar farm in Ovalu increases hopes for a stable source of eco-friendly electricity.
In the heart of the Pacific Islands, a chorus of student voices resonates together to paint a vivid picture of hopes, concerns, and aspirations despite the nuanced, complex threat that they face.
By empowering themselves to shape the trajectory of their nations through education and ideas, they serve as a wake-up call to the rest of the world. If they can do it despite the many hurdles, we certainly have the resources and ability to help them too.
So again, when your calm eyes scan the headlines of another natural disaster in some distant land miles away, please do not think of these as divorced from your reality. Remember with every plastic bag used, every light switch not turned off, or a drop of water wasted can dash the dreams of a Pacific Islander. Remember them, who above all share a symbiotic and emotional attachment to their homes, and how cruel it will be to tear their homes away from them. Remember their unique stories, practices, and traditions, and how these ought to be carried on for aeons to contribute to the mural of mankind.
It is utterly negligent and irresponsible to merely sit by and let these tragedies take place right under our eyelids.
Therefore, let us collaborate with the Pacific Islanders and amplify their voices through numerous loudspeakers. Let us pool our collective knowledge to develop novel, innovative solutions. Let us fulfil our responsibilities as inhabitants of Mother Earth. Our humanity demands it.