Look at the big rock

Here's a rock off Savo, Solomon Islands that tells a story of sea level change.

This blog is temporarily about travel and homeschooling in Solomon Islands. This post is by Nicola Baird

The sun is just getting high when I first see the big rock. It’s just a quadrangle of rough volcanic quartz jutting out of the sea on the edge of Savo island. Years ago the rock was a special custom site, and beyond it, where the sea is now, were the villagers’ food gardens.

That’s all changed. The stone is deep in the water now, and the only ones who think of it as special are the black tip sharks that crowd seaside in a small cave.

A few metres away from the waves, on a small land island, part gravel, part soil, stands a vast banyan tree. You’d need 20 adults to link outstretched arms if you wanted to measure its girth. The Solomon Islands’ children prefer playing in the tree. They love hide and seek inside the tree, or climbing up using the roots and branches as steps right to the canopy.

“Nothing can touch this tree,” says John proudly gazing up at the knot of branches which are home to myriad beetles, spiders, pollinators and birds. John’s from Temotu but has lived on the volcanic island of Savo for years. He now works as a guide for the Speaker of Parliament, and ex-Prime Minister Sir Allan Kemakeza’s resort, Sunset Lodge. “Even when there’s a big sea or a king tide this tree stays strong,” he insists.

But like the custom stone nearby the special banyan tree may not be as untouchable as John and the villagers think. As weather events become more extreme the beach gets washed away, making the tides creep ever up.

Climate change is making the impossible happen.

The little changes don’t seem like a disaster at first. You hardy notice a rock edging towards water, a standpipe getting nearer the beach or a mangrove bank shifting. The loss of the villagers’ tabu stone doesn’t make any difference economically to anyone. But when you realise that 80 per cent of Pacific Islanders live on the coast of what can be rather flat islands it’s a different story. In neighbouring Kiribati, a group of 32 coral atolls on the equator, you could bowl a cricket ball from shore to shore over many of them, including the ones with runways.

Savo doesn’t have an airstrip, sewerage, electricity or tapped water, even though it’s big enough to have four primary schools, two clinics and is only a 20 minute canoe ride from the country’s main island, Guadalcanal. Its perfect cone shaped volcano, still smoking sulphorous mixes from the main crater and small vents in the most unexpected places, is the big picture view residents of the country’s crowded capital, Honiara, enjoy.

Looking into the far distance, in the other direction, Walande, a tiny artificial island off Small Malaita, has become one Solomons first climate change casualties. First the fresh water got polluted by salt, then the king tides rushed under the leaf houses, spoiling them. Finally the 100 or so residents were forced to wade to church each Sunday – hoping they could get the Big Man to rehabilitate their home. It didn’t work.

No one can live on Walande any more.

Over in Gizo, what was once reknown as the “prettiest town in the south pacific” until spoilt by a post-earthquake tsunami in April 2007, resulting in at least 50 deaths, WWF Marine Co-ordinator Bruno Manele, 35, is sitting chewing betel nut outside his office. The town has all mod cons – gift shops, restaurants, banks and an internet cafe – but the power supply is so erratic it’s hard to know when the computers and cooling ceiling fans will work. Despite the soaring noonday heat, Bruno good humouredly explains the main threats to the environment in his beat – damage to the coral reef, over harvesting (of fish/shells etc), marine pollution and sea level rise.

“We were running a workshop at Paeloge, a coastal village near Gizo, and asked ‘what’s changed?’. The villagers pointed at the standpipe. It used to be on the shore but was now in the sea. They know the sea level is rising and build their houses inland. They could move inland, the land is there, the problem is that it doesn’t belong to them,” explains Bruno.

“People aren’t frightened. It’s not our culture to be scared, but they really do worry about the coastline changing. If the sea comes up, and the high tide is underneath your house it makes life even harder. The big question for everyone is where else can we make our food gardens?”

Caught up in the rush to pay off our loans and mortgages, get the kids to school, dodge the traffic and do the shopping – even on a sunny Pacific island it’s easy to miss the small clues about the way the world’s climate changes is already changing people’s lives.

You and I may not have noticed a village landmark go underwater, there’s no TV footage in that. You don’t call it climate change in the Pacific, you switch tenses in order to deal with disaster relief.

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