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Tiny island states seek help from rising Pacific

Written by: Staff

NADI, Fiji, Oct 25: As the rising Pacific Ocean laps at their doorsteps, tiny Tuvalu and Kiribati fear becoming environmental refugees and said major greenhouse gas emitters Australia and the United States have a moral obligation to help.

Aid and scientific groups have warned that millions in the Asia-Pacific region may be made homeless by sea level rises of up to 50 cm by 2070.

But Tuvalu, a speck of nine islands with 10,000 inhabitants, says their predicament is even more urgent as the ocean inexorably rises and threatens to engulf their palm-fringed homes.

''Our islands are very flat, as flat as a table,'' Paani Laupepa, a Tuvalu delegate at the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji, said today.

''It will be the whole population, the entire 10,000 people will be affected. We have a right to live in this environment and now we are being forced away,'' he told Reuters.

Tuvalu is upset that regional heavyweight Australia, a major aid donor but also one of the biggest per capita emitters of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warning, has so far spurned advances to help resettle their people.

It is also angry that Australia, already accused of being a regional bully over a diplomatic spat with the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, was unable to arrange even a short meeting between Prime Minister John Howard and his Tuvaluan counterpart Apisai Ielemia.

''Howard has no commitment. We are very frustrated,'' Laupepa said.


Kiribati, a nation of 33 coral atolls straddling the Equator and of 105,00 people, is in the same boat.

President Anote Tong said Kiribati had experienced unusually high tides in the past two weeks and fears small, low-lying nations like his will be swamped within 50 years.

''If we are talking about our island states submerging in 10 years' time, we simply have to find somewhere else to go,'' Tong told reporters at the start of the forum.

Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and parts of Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu are considered at greatest risk.

A climate change report by Australia's leading scientific research body released two weeks ago found that Micronesia had experienced an annual sea level rise of 21.4 mm since 2001.

It said a sea level rise of 30-50 cm would affect hundreds of millions of people across the Asia-Pacific region, slashing economic output, inundating large areas of Bangladesh, India and Vietnam and reducing Kiribati, Fiji and the Maldives to a small fraction of their current land area.

It also called on Australia, which is not a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol to cut greenhouse gases, to do more to combat climate change and to be more open to environmental refugees.

Laupepa said the responsibility for taking in those made homeless by rising sea levels rests squarely with the major greenhouse gas emitters.

''We are deeply concerned. Certainly they have a moral obligation to take responsibility for the problems created by their actions,'' he said.

Today, New Zealand, which already has a large population of Pacific Islanders, announced a plan to accept up to 5,000 seasonal workers from island states to work in agriculture.

''It's a foot in the door,'' Laupepa said. ''We are very grateful. Labour mobility is an opportunity to gain something useful in life.'' Howard has said he is ''disinclined'' to implement similar schemes and said Australia would instead fund a series of technical colleges around the Pacific to help raise skills.


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