Decades of million-dollar negotiations not enough to stop sinking Solomon Islands

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Solomon Star Newspaper, Pacific Region

Twenty-four years of negotiations by the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has proven too long for the world's low-lying developing states, as the effects of climate change have taken their toll.

This was the message from the Solomon Islands to the UNFCCC, at the recent Conference of Parties, or COP24, in Katowice, Poland.

“While parties are gathering at COP meetings to negotiate and discuss climate change issues, five islands in the Solomon Islands have since disappeared,” said Melchior Mataki, head of the Solomon Islands delegation to the COP.

Entire communities have  been internally displaced, and the country has been in a constant mode of recovery as a direct result of extreme weather events, he said, delivering one of the Solomon Islands greatest concerns at the recent COP.

The islands of Kwai and Ngongosila, in eastern Malaita, provide a classic example of how inhabitants are feeling the effects of increasingly severe weather and rising tides.

According to research, the average height of the island is two metres above sea level. 

But elders of the sister islands say they were once triple their current size. And local villagers of both Kwai and Ngongosila, which are located off the eastern coast of the mainland, remember how the two islands were once joined by a visible sand bar. 

“Kwai Island during our childhood days is a very beautiful place. There are huge trees in the island, where we also did gardening," said Janet Logafe Billy, 70, who was born on Kwai and left for the mainland after getting married.

“Between both islands was a sand dune," she continued. "It was very high and we could take a walk from island to island. Unlike today, where you can only get to the other side when it is low tide."

Today, the island is transformed, Billy says. The big banyan trees by the shores are gone, which has resulted in soil erosion.

"There are no sands left, to hold the island together," she adds. “The huge sand dunes between both islands have gone. You can only see its remains now."

An inhabitant of Ngongosila who now resides on the mainland shared similar thoughts.

“The changing climate today has brought a total change to the island of Ngongosila," said Vashni Oruta, who now lives in Adakoa.

“What used to be an island filled with white sandy beaches is now circled with a sea wall. People get rocks from the nearby reefs to build sea walls to [keep] the remaining soils in the island from being washed away into the seas."

A youth representative and Community Sports Coordinator, Micah Suraniu, also shared his family’s oral history about life in the sinking islands.

“From my parents and grandparents stories, in the past 100 years the two islands are bigger," Suraniu said.

“Now, the weather patterns have changed, hence, traditional fishing tips and knowledge are also disturbed by these changes," he said. "This means climate change is happening even if there is no actual scientific survey done in the two islands."

For decades, Suraniu added, local people could tell that the weather patterns are not normal.

Looking back at how the effects of climate change are affecting the people of the Solomon Islands, the message that Solomon Islands brought to the COP24 in Poland is precise.

“The IPCC 1.5 Special Report shows the grave risk of exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels," said Dr Mataki, referring to a scientific report on the impacts of global temperature rise.

“While this clearly outlines the gravity of the situation, it tells us that it’s still possible to bend the curve and keep global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius,” said Dr Mataki.

He called upon party delegates at the COP to welcome the report and to establish a work program on key findings under the auspices of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice, a subsidiary body to the UNFCCC. 

The COP needs to seriously consider and act upon what was stated in the IPCC report, and they must not only take note of its existence, said Dr. Mataki.

At the end of two weeks of negotiations, the recent climate change talks in Katowice, Poland, ended with a new rule book - a set of guidelines for implementing the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement.

The implementation of the agreement will benefit people from all walks of life, especially the most vulnerable, by working to reduce the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

And that's good news for the people of the world's low-lying islands, especially the people of Kwai and Ngongosila.

A version of this story was originally published in print in The Solomon Star.