Climate change is posing a grave threat to islands in Australia’s remote Torres Strait, underscoring urgent calls for Australia to do more to end its climate pollution, Oxfam Australia Chief Executive Helen Szoke said.
Dr Szoke, who recently returned from visiting the Torres Strait, said the islands were made up of strong, flourishing communities, but residents had been forced into the frontline of the climate crisis and the impacts of climate change could be seen everywhere.
“Torres Strait Islanders have contributed almost nothing to the causes of climate change, but are being hit first and hardest by its impacts,” Dr Szoke said.
“The Torres Strait Islands are already facing the challenges of delivering health services, housing, secure water supplies and other essential infrastructure in such remote and isolated communities.
“But the impacts of climate change are growing and pose a profound long-term threat. The gravest fear among community members is the loss of their connection to land and culture if they are faced with the last resort – being forced to leave their islands.”
Dr Szoke visited the Torres Strait region, with Oxfam climate change and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Program advisers, at the invitation of Torres Council Mayor Vonda Malone.
The group visited Boigu Island, the most northern inhabited island in the Torres Strait, and Masig (Yorke) Island to meet community members and observe first-hand the impacts they are experiencing.
“The Torres Strait Islands are hidden jewels, but can be forgotten by the rest of Australia, kept from our sight as they face a looming catastrophe,” Dr Szoke said.
“The islands face a combination of risks including coastal erosion and inundation from rising seas, damage to the critical marine ecosystems on which their livelihoods depend, higher temperatures and shifting rainfall.
“Roads are being washed away and seawalls cannot protect communities from flooding. In Boigu, part of the cemetery has nearly been lost to the sea and graves are at risk of being washed away.”
Dr Szoke said the situation in the Torres Strait was unquestionable evidence of the need for stronger action by the Federal Government to end Australia’s climate pollution – including no new coal mines and achieving zero emissions before 2040.
It also highlighted the need to provide greater support to communities like those in the Torres Strait – where residents were already working to tackle the realities of climate change – to build resistance, develop adaptation options and tap into the potential for renewable energy.
“The longer term challenges, including the threat of eventually being forced from their land, are complex and extremely confronting for communities with such a deep connection to their islands,” Dr Szoke said.
“Our visit highlighted the extraordinary connection between communities and their land and sea country.
“Whenever the issue of potential relocation is raised, community members are adamant that it was an option of last resort – they want to do everything possible to remain on their islands. Nobody wants to leave.”
Torres Council Mayor Vonda Malone said while there had been a lot of attention on climate change issues in the Pacific, there was less awareness of the real and frontline impacts of climate change in the Torres Strait.
“With Oxfam being such a leading advocate on climate change issues globally, Dr Szoke’s visit was an opportunity for her to see first-hand communities that are being highly impacted by climate change,” Ms Malone said. “It was also a chance to gain a better insight into the vulnerability of communities who are connected to land which is being inundated.
“These communities are facing ongoing challenges in retaining their foreshore and their gathering places – this is their land and the land of their ancestors.
“These communities are seeing their land washed away. We have been advocating for years, but it just does not seem to get enough attention.
Ms Malone said while some funding for adapting to climate change was filtering through, there were no resources to address the social impacts.
“There is a feeling of hopelessness as communities do not know where this is going to lead to,” Ms Malone said.
Boigu Island elder Dennis Gibuma said a seawall, built several years ago, was no longer adequately protecting the community.
“Things are changing every year,” Mr Gibuma said. “Our seawall is no longer any good. When the high tide and strong winds come together, it breaks. We pray we don’t lose our homes. We don’t want to leave this place.”
Masig (Yorke) Island resident Hilda Mosby said climate change was impacting on the marine ecosystems on which the communities depended.
“Climate change is affecting us big time,” Ms Mosby said. “When we talk about relocation, it is clear this is very much a last resort. This is our home. No-one is willing to leave, to lose their cultural ties, the loved ones they have laid to rest here. We want to try everything to keep our community here.”
Songhi Billy, an engineering officer on Masig Island, said the community was doing everything possible to try to slow the rate of erosion.
“In the short term, we can do what we can,” Mr Billy said. “We can’t stop the erosion, our hope is to slow it down.
“Long term, we may have to evacuate the island. But I am not going. Slowly, I see Masig Island getting out of something I can control.
“The island is being eaten. This is a big issue. I kind of feel hopeless in a sense. Our land is part of us.”
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