7 Jun 2016

NZ aid helping retain Pacific 'way of life' - McCully

9:30 am on 7 June 2016
Sand bagging the beach to stop erosion in Tarawa, Kiribati.

Sand bagging the beach to stop erosion in Tarawa, Kiribati. Photo: Supplied

New Zealand aid money going into the Pacific is making a real difference, but there are still huge challenges in the region, Foreign Minister Murray McCully says.

Mr McCully has just led the annual Pacific Mission, which visited Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Kiribati and Tuvalu.

Kiribati and Tuvalu are grappling with sea-level rise as a result of climate change, but they also have other critical problems.

Kiribati's tiny main island of Tarawa suffers chronic overcrowding and a lack of resources.

In Betio Village, at the South-Western tip of Tarawa, residents live in crowded conditions, and when illness sweeps through the village - it can be deadly.

The New Zealand High Commission's development officer, Lailai Takfai, said simple changes in the village were making a big difference.

She said rubbish collections points and special waste bags are helping clean up the village and New Zealand had also installed rainwater collection tanks in the village.

Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett said she was overwhelmed when she visited Betio Village.

"I sort of sat in the car and had tears - it was incredibly sad to be honest.

"I walked through the village, and my goodness, it was literally thousands of people and it was staggering to see how they were living."

The smaller village of Eita further to the east do not have the same overcrowding problems as Betio but the rising seas are causing headaches.

Paula Bennett (R) talks to members of Tuvalu cabinet.

Paula Bennett (R) talks to members of Tuvalu cabinet. Photo: RNZ / Chris Bramwell

The senior pastor of the village church, Eria Maerere, said the king tides were never a problem in the past, but now they regularly breached the seawall.

"Where we stand, when we first came in 1980 it was all dry, no water can come up to this place, but now the whole dry ground is covered with water during king tides.

"Not only that, but our Maneaba (meeting house) we raised the floor twice now to make it a little bit higher."

Eria Maerere is the Senior Minister in the village of Etia.

Eria Maerere is the Senior Minister in the village of Etia. Photo: RNZ / Chris Bramwell

To the south of Kiribati, Tuvalu has been having problems of its own.

In 1942 American troops dug large pits on Tuvalu's main island Funafuti, which were used as rubbish dumps for more than 70 years.

The pits filled with water, becoming very polluted, affecting groundwater and quality of life for residents.

The New Zealand government paid for the rubbish to be compacted and the pits filled, which had resulted in an 8 percent increase in usable land on the island.

Tuvalu's Foreign Minister Taukelina Finikaso said the difference was remarkable.

"It has really made a difference to our small islands, the topography is different now and it's beautiful and that's the most beautiful thing about it eh? The island looks much better now without those brackish waters we used to have out the front."

Mr McCully said New Zealand was making sure its aid money went into practical areas.

"We've tried to target the areas that make a difference, not just from a sort of comfort point of view, but from the point of view of protecting their very ability to exist, areas like renewable energy and the work we are doing with [land] reclamations - those things matter."

Mr McCully said despite what some international commentators said about people on Kiribati and Tuvalu wanting to leave because of climate change, most of the people there wanted to stay.

So he said it was important to try to help them live more sustainably, so they could retain their way of life.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs