15 Jul 2016

Pacific atolls ‘could be underwater by 2050’

7:53 am on 15 July 2016

The government is being warned to prepare for an impending stream of refugees from the Pacific as low-lying atolls are swamped by sea-level rise over the coming decades.

Labour is also calling for the government to take a humanitarian approach to people from the region who are overstayers in New Zealand.

United Nations warns if sea level rise continues at the current rate, the Pacific atolls of Kiribati and Tuvalu could be completely submerged within decades.

Beach and traditional hut surrounded by wall of tyres

The tyre wall helps protect buildings from the tide on Tarawa in Kiribati. Photo: RNZ / Chris Bramwell

Terry Edwards has lived on Kiribati's main atoll of Tarawa his entire life.

The people there feared for the future, he said.

"We are so afraid and we think about Kiribati, Kiribati maybe in future is going to sink, we worry about it."

The senior pastor of the church in Eita Village in Kiribati, Eria Maerere, said the King Tides were never a problem when he moved there in 1980.

"When we first heard about the rise of the sea level, we thought that somebody made up a story.

"At the beginning of 2000 we begin to realise that it is no more of a fiction, it's a true story."

Photo looking down rectangular rubbish dump with palms on either side

Rubbish dumps have, in the past, led to the contamination of drinking water. Photo: RNZ / Chris Bramwell

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said whatever international commentators claimed about climate change refugees, the people on the islands did not want to leave.

"They want to stay where they are, the traditions and cultures are everything, and hence there are strong reasons why they want to stay, but they need us to focus on some realistic investments that are going to help them be able to stay."

Labour's Su'a William Sio said the people of the Pacific were fighting a losing battle.

The government could take a more sympathetic approach to overstayers from Kiribati and Tuvalu and not send them back to islands already under pressure, he said.

"The main islands they've got issues not just with climate change, but with population growth and waste on both Tuvalu and Kiribati, so I think we've got to seriously look at what we do with that, and my view is that we need to adopt a humanitarian stance with the overstayers that are here."

MP in selfie on coast line with houses in the background

Labour's S'ua William Sio in Betio Village, Kiribati Photo: Supplied

Climate change refugees might not be a serious issue now, but they would become one, he said.

"The overwhelming scientific evidence is telling us these islands will be underwater by 2050 or 2070, so we actually do need to have a strategic long term plan in preparation to help these islanders because we can't just sit around once those islands are underwater."

Mr McCully said the notion that Pacific Island nations would suddenly depopulate was fanciful, and the government's current focus was helping people there live more sustainably so they could stay in their homes.