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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Climate change affecting the world now

Monday, October 5, 2009

Climate change is regularly mentioned in the news, and the frequency will increase as we approach the Copenhagen conference in December. This international summit is charged with coming up with a plan to replace the 1997 ‘Kyoto Protocol’ - which set voluntary targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. A new plan is urgently required - we used to think that climate change was about the future, it’s now clear it’s a problem of the present and that huge numbers of people are suffering.


A new report estimates that around 300,000 people die each year due to climate change, with a further 300 million adversely affected. (Climate Change, Global Humanitarian Forum Geneva 2009). Amongst those affected are the people of the small island nations in the Pacific, living in a region comprising nearly a third of the world’s surface area. They have become one of the front lines of climate change.


I recently led a small Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to study the effects climate change is having on some of the smallest countries of the world. The group visited Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu and Tuvalu all members of the Commonwealth. Tuvalu is small with a population of 11,000. Kiribati has a population of 98,000, the Tongans number around 110,000, while Vanuatu is much the biggest with a population over 200,000.


As we saw, both Tuvalu and Kiribati comprise a number of low-lying islands, much more vulnerable to the effects of the weather than large continental landmasses. While extreme events here, such as flooding, receive extra government resources and are regarded as wake up calls about climate change, in the Pacific extreme weather brings death, severe hardship and can mean the end of a village community.


We heard from many people of the islands about how the effects of climate change are making their daily life much more difficult. Some were angry that they suffer the effects of the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, whilst having contributed virtually none themselves. Experts at the University of the South Pacific described it as one of the most profound issues across the Pacific.


A boat ride across choppy waters took us to Marou on Emau: a small island in Vanuatu. The village is built on a promontory and Daniel Kaltava, a provincial councillor, showed us how the land is being eroded. Already the village relies on harvested rainwater as their ground water has been contaminated by the rising sea. Funds from international organisations have provided reinforcement for the coastline, but the villagers live with the fear that a storm could destroy the defences lining the coast.


The Pacific islands are relatively poor and less able to cope with the extreme weather that is becoming more frequent. Their economies are shaped by the changes brought by climate change changes setting back attempts at sustainable economic development. Local people lack the resources needed to be resilient to these new weather events.


It is often portrayed as an issue of the sea rising, with the low-lying islands disappearing under water. But long before that the people will have had to move; already in Vanuatu one small island’s population has been relocated. Rising salty seawater contaminates the drinking water, meaning that rainwater has to be collected. On the main island of Tuvalu, Funafuti, the local council told us that families are currently rationed to six buckets of water each morning and evening.


Crucially over time the land becomes saturated with salty water, making it impossible to grow food. At the moment around 70 80% of the people on these islands are reliant upon agriculture. We heard in Tuvalu that the island now regularly experiences high tides leading to flooding.  How can a small farmer keep animals or sow crops when fertile soils and freshwater are contaminated with salt from rising seas?


Having to import food means costs increase, putting pressure on the economy of these small nations. Across the South Pacific the issue of food security has risen in importance. Experts from the Vanuatuan Metrological office told us that their consultation on climate change showed this to be the number one issue for local people.


Does it really matter if these people have to leave their islands? The Prime Minister of Kiribati is already publicly talking about his people having to move. If left unabated climate change refuges will increase in numbers not just in the Pacific region but also across Africa, north India and Bangladesh. Whether due to rising seawater or draught, the inability to grow food will force people on the move.


Pressure will grow for the larger countries in the Pacific to take in climate change refugees from the smaller island nations. But the reality is that no Pacific nation will be unaffected, no matter how large. More than half the population of the islands of the region live within 1.5 km of the shore. A regional organisation, which maps climate change, showed us that within 20 years heavily populated areas of many nations in the region would be uninhabitable.


Some of these islands have begun to prepare for the future. For instance Vanuatu has prepared a National Adaptation Programme for Action, but due to lack of funding has not been able to implement much. It’s important we support the Pacific people as they try and adapt to a future determined by the changeable weather, changeable because of our actions in pumping out gas emissions. These communities are poor and vulnerable; they are victims of climate change.


The people of these islands welcomed our group, and were open about the devastating effects that climate change is having on their lives. The study group encouraged them to take an active part in the deliberations in Copenhagen their experience has to be heard and acted upon. The urgency of the situation in the Pacific should not be missed. It has been said that the Pacific is “the canary in the coalmine” warning the world of future disasters.



Whilst there Meg visited and met the following:


The University of the South Pacific

Recently Meg visited the University of the South Pacific, owned by 12 countries in the Pacific. Its main campus is in Fiji’s capital, Suva, with smaller campuses on other islands. It also offers a significant proportion of its courses through distance learning.


One of the important areas of their research is climate change, where they have over 20 years experience. As the region is on the front line of the effects of climate change they cannot wait for things to further deteriorate.


Making Co-operative friends

Meg was delighted to meet up with Halo Tuavai. He told Meg that in 1983 he spent a year, sponsored by the Tuvaluan Government, studying at the Co-operative College, then based at Stanford Hall near Loughborough. Halo recalled a thorough education in co-operation, including a visit to the home of co-operation in Rochdale, and Co-operative Societies throughout the UK. He was pleased to report that the Tuvaluan Co-operative continues strongly, particularly on the outer islands where it is the mainstay of food retailing. Other co-operatives also operate on the island including one for coconut oil.


National Trust Fiji

Meg visited Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park, an area of 650 acres managed by the National Trust of Fiji. It was designated as Fiji’s first national park in 1989. The National Trust was created to protect Fiji’s natural and cultural heritage. The sand dunes include land form features, archaeological remains and natural beach forest. There are also 22 species of birds.  


The British High Commission has supported the work at the Sand Dunes over a number of years by holding fund raising events. Recently money has been raised to provide education materials for school children to teach them the value of preserving this unique environment.


Associated Photograph :

The island of Funafuti, Tuvalu’s main island, from the air showing how low-lying it is.

The island of Funafuti, Tuvalu’s main island, from the air showing how low-lying it is.

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