Banaban Voice

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Environmental Refugees: a reality of things to come

For anyone that has any doubts over rising sea levels they need to visit Tarawa in Kiribati when the next westerly's and king tides hit the island and take a drive along the causeway between Betio and the island's capital Bairiki. When the waves start crashing over the roof of your car with the whole force of the Pacific Ocean behind them you can only hope and pray that you will not get washed away in the wild seas. Once you are on the causeway which is about 3klms long you are at the point of no return and there is no where to run. You are surrounded by a very angry ocean; water, water every where for as far as the eye can see.

It is a very scary moment… a reality check, and for the majority of te I-Matang’s who come from countries with a large land mass they have no idea or understanding of what it is like to be living on a tiny strip of land only feet above sea level. To see the poor locals on Tarawa who live in the low lying areas of the island huddled together on the raised floors of their mwengas (traditional houses) with the ocean lapping just inches under them. Their fresh water drinking wells submerged and inundated with salty sea water.

I was in Tarawa in 1997 and experienced this first hand only to arrive back in Australia to hear our (now ex) Prime Minister John Howard, telling all who would listen that there was no such things as Global Warming and that these islands had been going up and down for centuries. If I had my way at the time I would have taken him to Tarawa for a nice little drive along the causeway and see how he felt about the issue after experiencing it first hand. I even had one politician tell me recently that Kiribati was just part of an underwater plate that was moving.

While the debate here in Australia goes on… all I know is that there are hundreds of small islands scattered across the Pacific and Indian Oceans who are all experiencing the same thing. So there must be a lot of plates sinking at the moment all over the world.

There have been calls to bring the Kiribati and Tuvaluans to live in Australia and New Zealand and the new term – ENVIRONMENTAL REFUGEE has emerged. Everyone seems to be now quoting the Banabans as the ‘Test Case’ for lessons learnt in what 'not' to do when relocating an entire community. While everything might sound feasible and straight forward on paper, they have no idea of the impact this will have on thousands of Islanders and virtually the decimation of entire communities.

While Australia is busy protecting its borders from foreigners arriving illegally on our shores in leaking boats, many of our population choose to believe there is no such thing as Global Warming. However in coming years they may be forced to face a far greater problem than a handful of occasional boat people as more and more Islanders begin to become displaced. We could end up with thousands of Environmental Refugees calling on their Pacific neighbours for help and safe shelter.

The one thing we can say for certain is that if anyone knows what it is like to be an 'Environmental Refugee ' it is the Banabans. The difference in the Banaban case is that their homeland is a high island that is over 150 feet above sea level. While it has been left devastated from 80 years of phosphate mining it will always remain the Banaban homeland – a place that every Banaban will gratefully still be able to call home.

Stacey King

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