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Life in Luluagalo is all about the sea. The village stretches across into the azure waters of Langa Langa lagoon, on the island of Malaita in the Solomon Islands. ©Josua Wainigasau Tuware/ICRC

When the king tide comes

 

Global warming is leading to uncertain times for the ‘saltwater people’ in Langa Langa, a lagoon on the west coast of Malaita, Solomon Islands.

Desderio Johnson has lived in Luluagalo, a village built on man-made coral islands that stretch into the azure waters of Langa Langa lagoon, on the island of Malaita in the Solomon Islands, since 1945. Now after six-and-a-half decades living on the sea, he and his village face an uncertain future.

“Last December, we had a ‘king tide’ and it covered the whole village,” Johnson says of the abnormally high tidal surge that inundated his home with knee-deep water. “That’s not the only problem.”

Johnson shares Langa Langa lagoon with the rest of the ‘saltwater people’, who have mastered the art of building houses on man-made coral islands, put in place over years, sometimes after generations, of labour. Like his neighbours’ homes, Johnson’s house is built with wood and thatching made with sago palm leaves.

Roughly 15 coral islands are spread across the long narrow lagoon, which stretches north–south along 20 kilometres of Malaita’s western coast. Some of the bigger islands host 10 to 15 families while on others, a lone house stands above the waves.

As sea levels rise and weather patterns change, the islanders are no longer safe in homes so intimate with the sea. As villagers build up the islands to stay above the water, the stones, which once covered the lagoon floor, have all been used up. The villagers have limited options to adjust to the threat of the sea.

“We don’t like to move inland,” Johnson says, scratching his stubbled face. “There are too many disputes between the villagers on the artificial islands and those inland. This is causing so many problems.”

For saltwater people who move inland, the challenges include a higher cost of living, the lack of employment, uncertain access to health and educational facilities, as well as the potential for tensions between ethnic groups over limited jobs and resources.

Despite the problems, a growing number of saltwater people are moving to urban areas and some are now asking the provincial Malaita government for help in resettling. The most popular destination is Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. It is half an hour away by plane and four hours by boat. The islands, and the unique culture they support, may soon disappear.

Since time immemorial

The islanders will need more than their island-building skills to counter these threats to their livelihoods and existence. Like many other inhabitants of Pacific island nations, the people of Malaita are searching for local solutions as they appeal for assistance and international action on global warming.

In North Malaita, the Solomon Islands Red Cross is working with islanders at Lau lagoon, which also has artificial islands, on various health programmes to help villagers adapt to change. Lack of access to usable water is a major problem due to increasing salinization of local water tables caused by rising sea levels.

After surveying the communities’ needs, the Red Cross installed water tanks and provided hammers, nails and crowbars to help villagers fashion and craft rocks for building the artificial islands higher. The tools are also used to help villagers build latrines. Funded by the Australian Red Cross, the project covers eight communities and ends in 2011.

At an international level, the Solomon Islands government is trying to raise awareness and support. In September 2009, it made an urgent plea to the 64th session of the United Nations (UN ) General Assembly.

“This year sea-level rise and king tides have hit various parts of the country [destroying] food gardens, dwellings and water sources,” according to the government’s report to the UN . “Those impacted are mostly populations residing in low lying islands (atolls), Malaita outer islands including those occupying Malaita artificial islands since time immemorial.

“The frequency of these weather events has drastically increased,” the report continues, “and is becoming a daily phenomenon that these populations are coping with.’’

Ruined crops and fruit

Mindful of these threats, Pio Baenisia, disaster risk reduction officer for the Solomon Islands, has made several trips to the island state’s at-risk areas. Climate change is an issue close to the heart of this native of Abalolo village in Langa Langa.

Abalolo is on the mainland but it was built on mangrove swamp reclaimed by villagers who used rubble, coral and limestone as a foundation. The villagers have also raised their houses on stilts and piles as a precaution against the sea. It is accessible by road, half an hour’s drive from Auki, the capital of Malaita island.

As we drive from Auki, he points out several places along the coast where the encroachment of salty seawater has ruined croplands. “Here, this is where they used to have plantations, growing sweet potatoes and other crops. Now the soil is too salty for anything to grow properly. Now there’s just bush.”

The lack of food from the natural surroundings means islanders now have to rely on imported rice, tinned meat and other foodstuffs. This is not easy for villagers whose lifestyle and economy are based mainly on subsistence farming and fishing.

Baenisia has not been long on the job, just a few months. But he senses the urgency in the task. “Some fruit trees are no longer bearing fruit due to increased saltwater,” he says. “Even in swampy areas there are changes. Muddy areas have become sandy, and it’s diminishing the number of mud oysters, shellfish and mud crabs that we collect.”  

Josua Wainigasau Tuwere is an ICRC delegate
based in Fiji.


After six-and-a-half decades living on the sea, Desderio Johnson faces an uncertain future. Like many in his village, he may have to move inland and give up his way of life if seawaters continue to rise.
©Josua Wainigasau Tuware/ICRC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


“Some fruit trees
are no longer
bearing fruit
due to increased
saltwater. Even
in swampy areas
there are changes.
Muddy areas have
become sandy, and
it’s diminishing the
number of mud
oysters, shellfish
and mud crabs
that we collect.

Pio Baenisia, disaster
risk reduction officer
for the Solomon Islands.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Villagers build foundations and pathways by piling rocks and coral into small islands that rise just above sea level.
©Josua Wainigasau Tuware/ICRC

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