warming is leading to uncertain times for the ‘saltwater
in Langa Langa, a lagoon on the west coast of Malaita, Solomon
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
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
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
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
“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
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.”
Tuwere is an
based in Fiji.