Nanai Ariavogo stands on a hillside overlooking Gabagaba Village in PNG. Picture: LEILA PARINA
By LEILA PARINA
Nanai Ariavogo is a former councillor of Gabagaba Village in Papua New Guinea. As a leader, he’s had to help the residents get through the storms and droughts caused by numerous disasters.
Today, he’s retired and lives a simple life in the village while also grappling with how much has changed because of the climate crisis. The 64-year-old is a former architectural draftsman who has seen first-hand the impacts of climate change on his coastal village.
Mangroves disappeared after the riverbanks opened up, flooding has become more frequent, and storms and rough seas continue to wash away gravel and sand from beneath the village.
“My village is one of those villages that stands on stilts and people have become accustomed to living over the water,” he said.
“With the weather changes, sea rise and the beachfront driven further back, people are left with no option. They just need to cope with the changes.
“While the weather takes its course, people are not helping because they are using bad fishing practices like using dynamite for fishing.”
He said this activity had caused damage to the marine life and coral system.
“The last time I went [to see the corals] I could not believe that much of the reef I knew of was just all dust,” Ariavogo said.
“I only hope and pray our communities will get their act together to do all the necessary things to help maintain our village from further damage and erosion caused by man and the weather.”
He said many residents were forced to adapt to the changing environment.
When residents were hit hard by heavy rain that lasted three days and caused flooding in 2016, the community came together to put up a sea wall at a church to withstand more water.
“The big downpour in 2016 broke the village in four areas. A lot of gravel and sand were washed down to the sea,” Ariavogo said.
“At one point we tried to put up seawalls but I don’t think we did the right applications in trying to hold fast the gravel and sand, so it also gave way again.”
He said they sought assistance from Government and developed trainings on adaptation and mitigation for the community.
Ariavogo turned to his faith hoping that one day more can be done to directly address the rising tide that he says both “men and the weather” were responsible for.
“Climate change will not help bring my village back. But I am just hopeful that by the good Grace of our Lord, my village could go back to the very first time when I came to know about this world,” he said.
According to the 23rd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) country report on PNG, rising sea levels and devastating King Tides wipe out crops, inundate water sources and destroy homes across the country.
For residents of Carteret Islands, PNG’s six low-lying atolls, the shift in weather patterns presents an even greater threat: rising sea levels threaten the very existence of the islands.
“Some 1,700 residents of Carteret Island’s total 2,500 inhabitants have been named the world’s first environmental refugees.
“It’s a preventive measure for a part of PNG that was deemed uninhabitable by 2015 and predicted to be inundated by 2050,” the COP23 country summary noted.
“Communities throughout PNG face similar threats as they, too, confront the consequences of shifting weather patterns.”
With a population of 8.9 million and a landmass spanning some 460 thousand square miles, PNG is the largest nation in the Pacific Southwest. The COP23 country summary report states that PNG depends on subsistence agriculture, with almost half of the population living on less than a $1 per day.
“Rising sea levels and destructive weather events have a serious impact, on land and at sea.
“The country’s surrounding sea levels have risen by 7 mm (0.28 inches) per year since 1993, more than double the global average. Cyclones are predicted to grow in intensity, albeit lessen in frequency; to date, the nation averages 15 cyclones every 10 years.
“Wind speed will increase by up to 11 per cent, with rainfall that will intensify by about 20 per cent by the end of the 21st century. At the same time, the country will continue to experience coastal and inland floods. 61 rivers maze through the East Sepik; a severe flood in this PNG province could engulf up to 10 per cent of the land, jeopardising the lives of the more than 430,000 residents who call the area home.”
The report noted that these extreme weather events could lead to the loss of the country’s wetlands, destroy the country’s fisheries, pollute clean water sources and heighten the risk, and spread, of water-borne diseases.
By 2030, experts predict that PNG’s temperature will increase by up to 1.1C (33.98° Fahrenheit) per year.
“Rising temperatures threaten to cut in half the production of staple root crops, such as sweet potatoes, over the next three decades. Elsewhere, residents and schools use rain tanks to collect drinking water. But with droughts occurring more frequently, these tanks run dry, and residents are often left with no fresh water.
“Many schools close early because they cannot provide students with clean water to drink. Despite the financial obstacles at hand, the country has activated national efforts to reduce carbon emissions and tap into sustainable adaptation measures.
“PNG maintains an ongoing conservation initiative to preserve its mangrove trees. Mangroves can withstand the change in salt levels left by the high tides, making the trees a natural barrier against coastal erosion and floods,” the report highlighted.
The report stated that trees additionally provided safe habitat for marine life and, protected the livelihoods of those dependent on the country’s commercial fisheries. Working alongside the United Nations Development Programme and Green Climate Fund, PNG has spearheaded initiatives that provide authorities and residents the tools to make informed decisions about planning for and responding to coastal and inland floods.
“Data collection, coupled with information management and dissemination, allows PNG to educate, alert and support its coastal and river communities before a flood strikes. Moreover, PNG’s climate and development plans strives to achieve a ‘no-regrets’ climate change policy,” the report noted.
“Under these efforts, the nation has committed to investing in new water technologies to recycle water, as well as transition to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030, and carbon neutrality by 2050.”
Papua New Guinea is one of 43 nations on the Climate Vulnerable Forum. The country ratified the Paris Climate Change Agreement in August 2016.
* This article was produced under the Next Generation Radio project partnership between The USP Journalism Programme and the East-West Center. The project includes full-scale, digital-first multimedia training with an emphasis on audio.