The Pacific rising

Hiliako Iaheto is watching the high tide mark at Macandrew Bay rise higher too. Photo: Gerard O...
Hiliako Iaheto is watching the high tide mark at Macandrew Bay rise higher too. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
The response to a changing climate is well advanced in the Pacific, providing lessons for the rest of us, writes Tom McKinlay. 

As the thousands of School Strike 4 Climate marchers enveloped the Octagon stage this year, a busy figure went unobtrusively to work.

Hiliako Iaheto, musician and music teacher, had been prevailed upon to organise the public address system.

So the young climate leaders delivered their calls for action through the microphones he passed them.

"What do we want?" they asked. "Climate justice," came the booming response.

"When do we want it?" they asked. "Now!"

Then, some of the speakers talked about the Pacific and the places where "now" can’t happen soon enough.

Iaheto says he was happy to help.

"I’m really proud of them," he says of the young people who led Dunedin’s School Strike 4 Climate effort.

"But I can also sense for them, I feel for them that they have been left with a responsibility that the generation before them, and before them, should have done something about ... What a weight."

Iaheto has seen this dynamic before, in Tokelau, where he was born and raised. Where young people have led from the front on climate change.

"They are a lot more conscious over on the islands," he says.

For several years now, Tokelauans have been active as part of the Climate Warriors group, young people drawn from islands across the Pacific who have taken their call for action to climate talks in Europe.

Dunedin’s school strikers have quite explicitly joined that cause, owning the fact they live in a coastal Pacific city where some have only dunes between them and a rising ocean.

Tokelau is a non self-governing territory of New Zealand, a collection of atolls and islets just south of the equator. It’s the paradise of popular imagination; sand, reefs, palms and blue ocean.

But it’s also on the front line, as nowhere on its three main atolls is more than 5m above sea level.

Tokelauans’ response has been robust. It was the first nation in the world to go 100% solar for electricity, ditching its diesel generators, and is adding wind power to the mix.

They just need the rest of the world to catch up.

"Soon those atolls will no longer be the beautiful atolls they are, of sand and luscious green, island vibe," Hiliako says. "It will be the islands of retaining walls, of concrete blocks. Already I see big slabs of concrete being built.

"That is a picture of survival. The culture, the people, they are trying to survive."

Iaheto lives in Macandrew Bay, Dunedin these days, he came out to New Zealand on an educational scholarship in the early 1980s; stayed, met his partner, had a son.

Taua Ritiata and his daughter Leila. Photo: Supplied
Taua Ritiata and his daughter Leila. Photo: Supplied
The last time he was back in Tokelau — not an easy place to get to — was 1999.

"In 1999 I was there for about four weeks but the impact of the water, my gosh. I noticed the major shift of the sea level rising."

Growing up there, the surrounding reef was bone dry at low tide, so that was a time to gather food, Iaheto says.

However, by 1999 the low tide still covered the reef, and high tides, king tides, they were on the march.

"When you go to the middle of the village, you just dig a metre and there’s water.

"So king tides or high tide, part of the village that we call the malae — which is equivalent to the marae — sometimes at king tide, water comes up on there."

Iaheto does not like to think about the prospect of his people having to abandon their homes.

He observes that mass migration has not gone well for others, Europe providing the most recent example of that.

"What are people without land?" he asks.

First the land goes, then the culture, then the language.

That dynamic is at the centre of Taua Ritiata’s research at the University of Otago.

The man from Kiribati is completing a master’s thesis through the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies on identity in the face of climate change.

It is something the people of his country — it’s population about the same as Dunedin’s — have been wrestling with now for a while as the big existential question arrives with the tide; can they stay or must they go? If they go, what then of the Kiribati sense of identity?

Ritiata’s academic endeavours are part of one response to those questions.

Kiribati’s former president, Anote Tong, argued that as part of his country’s response to climate change the young people of the islands group should educate themselves. Then, if they must flee their island homes, they would at least be well-educated refugees.

"Because we don’t know the day, we don’t know the time," Ritiata says.

During his presidency, Tong also bought land in Fiji, as a further backstop for his country.

But there is the prospect of conflict there too, Taua says. For all that the Government of Fiji has been supportive, it is another question whether that welcome extends down through society.

"There will be ordinary Fijians with connections to that land too."

Tong’s presidency came to an end at the last election, and the new administration, led by Taneti Maamau is taking a different approach, Ritiata says.

"He has kind of rejected the notion of sinking islands."

President Maamau intends to rebuild his country’s infrastructure, luxury resorts included.

Whether that’s realistic is an open question.

Ritiata is certainly not giving up and plans to return to Kiribati to do what he can.

"I want to go back and contribute myself. It is very beautiful, where I come from."

Among Ritiata’s motivations is his daughter, Leila. Walking but not yet speaking, the sun shines from her smile and it seems entirely likely the sparkle in her eyes mirrors the ocean surrounding her home.

"I hope that she will see some of the culture there when she goes back," her father says.

Mino Cleverley too is studying in Dunedin while keeping an eye on the islands.

Mino Cleverley is looking at the potential for conflict as climate change intensifies. Photo:...
Mino Cleverley is looking at the potential for conflict as climate change intensifies. Photo: Peter McIntosh
The senior student’s PhD, also through the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, is on climate change conflict; what might happen as coastal dwellers are pushed inland.

His experience of the response to climate change in Samoa is of people accepting the challenge and moving to meet it.

There his wife’s family land has been affected by coastal erosion.

That comes with a particular threat for people of the Pacific, where family are commonly buried in front of homes, between the front door and the sea.

"When Pacific people see their ancestors floating away it is really heart-rending," Cleverley says.

But the community is rallying and efforts around his wife’s land are focusing on salt-resistant plantings to hold the line, he says.

"I am looking at Samoa, I am looking at the coastal village situation. And looking at it with an indigenous perspective and looking at the resilience that is within the village. Because that is our anchor, the village. That is how we have survived for millennia in the Pacific because of the interconnectedness of our villages and families. That’s our history, there’s no social welfare, no central government to help us. We have had to do it within our own resources."

There will be lessons there for everyone.

"A big determinant of quality of life is the sense of community, wherever you are and it is looking out for each other and I think it is universal."

Cleverley’s observations are backed up by research by others at the University of Otago. That work has identified a range of strategies being employed at a village level, including to diversify food and water sources, remain geographically mobile and have more than one place to live, and develop mental and spiritual strength.

Back in Macandrew Bay, Iaheto says none of this will be easy for the coming generations, but that has to be kept in perspective.

"The difference between not easy and survival is the urgency of it," he says.

He sees the same challenges here as high-tide lines in Macandrew Bay move higher.

Then there was 2015, during the rainfall that flooded South Dunedin.

Macandrew Bay became a pond where it was hard to see where the coast road ended and the harbour began.

"We live in the biggest island in the Pacific," Iaheto says. "For Aotearoa, it completes the triangle; from Hawaii to Aotearoa over to Rapanui, Easter Island. So all the people who live here, be it pakeha, whatever, we are still islanders."

We’re connected, he says.

"These young people they have embraced all our cultures," he says of the young School Strike 4 Climate marchers.

"We can move from that, being able to embrace who we are as a nation. Equally, we can shift to accept responsibility for the survival of mankind, with this global issue. It can be done, it is achievable, it is a possibility. With will and hope it is possible."

Call to board the vaka 

Kelly Moneymaker is in Madrid with her film about Tokelau's climate change efforts. Photo: Supplied
Kelly Moneymaker is in Madrid with her film about Tokelau's climate change efforts. Photo: Supplied
It’s time to get in the vaka and help with the paddling, Kelly Moneymaker says.

The message is for anyone with ears to hear, but the documentary maker is already broadcasting it to those in the best position to respond.

Moneymaker is in Madrid for the COP25 talks, the latest United Nations-sponsored climate change conference, where she is unveiling her documentary Vaka, about the remarkable efforts of the people of Tokelau to meet the challenge.

Moneymaker spent three weeks in the island nation earlier this year with a documentary crew from her Massey University film-making course and came away with a story about how a combination of indigenous knowledge and modern technology is mapping a way forward.

"What we found is the Tokelauan people, they have this long-term data from their ancestors because they pass down information from one generation to another and they know what their environment looked like before humans started to impact it.

"Also, even though they have all this long-term knowledge, they are embracing modern science, data collection and assistance from New Zealand to help them support their cultural wisdom.

"The combination of the two, I feel, could be the key to solving climate change issues."

Tokelau’s unique "inati" system, in which the atolls’ resources are shared equally, provides the platform for the approach.

"It is always about sharing and taking care of each other."

Moneymaker, of Samoan and Inuit heritage, says the inclusive culture allows them to access knowledge from whoever holds it, whether that’s from different groups within their own community or the wider world.

They come together, talk, share and decide what to do. "We call them solutionists."

So far, that’s included a rapid transformation of their energy system, away from diesel to solar and wind, shrinking their already minuscule greenhouse gas footprint, building seawalls and renourishing their reefs, building raised garden beds and getting about in electric golf carts.

"They are not giving up, they are giving it everything they have."

The associated message is that if they can do it, everyone can do it.

"What we are asking is for people to watch this [documentary] and learn from their resilience and their problem-solving skills and get in the vaka."




There is zero evidence for the caim that Kiribati is sinking, but there is plenty of evidence for the opposite - that such low-lying atoll islands are not sinking, but growing.

From a new paper by Virginie K. E. Duvat, of the Institut du Littoral et de l'Environnement, University of la Rochelle, France:

A reanalysis of available data, which cover 30 Pacific and Indian Ocean atolls including 709 islands, reveals that no atoll lost land area and that 88.6% of islands were either stable or increased in area, while only 11.4% contracted...

Over the recent past, 29 atolls exhibited a stable land area, while one (South Tarawa, Kiribati) increased in size

This confirms earlier studies:

Professor Paul Kench and Dr Arthur Webb studied 27 atoll islands in the central Pacific over a period of up to 60 years. They said: "Results show that 86% of islands remained stable (43%) or increased in area (43%) over the timeframe of analysis."

Source: Andrew Bolt, Herald Sun, November 4, 2018

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