Listen: Maria Timon explains how rising oceans and drought conditions are impacting island nations. Above: Kiribati locals call for action on climate change as international delegates arrive to attend the Tarawa Climate Change Conference. EPA/NICKY PARK
If all you’ve ever heard about climate change is theories from scientists, and speeches by politicians and activists, then you haven’t heard the full story.
What you need to hear next, are the devastating stories of those who are suffering from climate change and ocean rise the most—like our Pacific neighbours.
To shine a light on these stories, the Catholic justice organisation Caritas has released its 2016 report on the state of the environment in Oceania, called Hungry for Justice, Thirsty for Change.
A large part of the report is a collection of first-hand accounts from Pacific islanders whose lives have been changed by the effects of climate change, like drought, crop failure, thirst, malnutrition, and villages inundated by rising sea levels.
These impacts are being felt in island nations like Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Kiribati.
‘Babies Died Because of the Salty Water’
Report ambassador Maria Timon told Hope 103.2 about the effects she’s seen first-hand in her homeland of Kiribati, a small nation made up of 33 coral attols that are vulnerable to rising tides.
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“A lot of people are really suffering from the sea level rise,” she said. “They have to relocate and evacuate their villages. One village in Kiribati has had to evacuate all of its people. All you can see now left behind is the Catholic Church and the meeting house. The people have relocated to another village.”
Maria’s also seen babies die from the effects caused by a changing climate.
“In 2009 in Kiribati, some of the islands were hit by a long drought,” she said. “And babies died because of the brackish [salty] water. I was very devastated. One of my friends lost two nieces in one month because of the water. Her story is in the report.”
Saline ground water occurs in drought conditions, which upset the balance between coastal fresh water and sea water, leading to islanders in some cases having only salty water to drink.
Malnutrition and Food Shortage Caused by Climate Change
Papua New Guinea is known as one of the island nations with the richest soils, yet because of the drought last year caused by the El Nino effect, an estimated 2.7 million people were affected by food and water shortages.
And across 13 Pacific islands, 5 million people were affected in some way by the changing climate’s effects.
“We’re talking about malnutrition, fresh water and food shortages, and even people dying of starvation,” Maria said.
“Papua New Guinea is one of the volcanic islands and in the past they said that only coral attols would be affected [by climate change], but now it’s volcanic islands being affected too.
“In the Solomon Islands there’s a big hospital where the doctors and nurses in the Pacific Region go to do their training. Each year, 6000 babies are born in that hospital. But the patients and the women, the babies, the sickest people, have been evacuated four times [this year] because of sea level rise.”
Australia Needs to Act on Climate Change – And Fast
Maria has been busy lobbying Australian politicians, calling on them to be more active about directing resources into the problem.
“I feel very frustrated when the developed rich countries still don’t see this as an issue,” Maria said. “This is an issue for us, and it’s happening now. It’s not in the future.
“Sadly and unfortunately we are the most vulnerable. Some developed countries like Australia might argue that climate change is about economy but for our people it’s about our very survival.
“So I strongly feel that Australia really needs to take a lead on climate change.”
Maria pointed out the great injustice of climate change: while island nations are suffering some of the worst effects, they are also the nations that produce the least in the way of least greenhouse gases and other pollutants which cause climate change.
“As a mother, as a woman, I think this is about human rights and justice,” she said. “In the Pacific Islands they’re very poor materially and yet they’re so rich in culture. They’ve hardly contributed to this issue, and yet they are the first ones to be affected, while the region’s developed countries are enjoying the benefits of [fossil fuels]. We are talking about Justice and human rights.”