Saturday, August 18, 2012

Vanuatu 2012

Not only does Vanuatu has the dubious honor of being home to the world's first community to be forced to move from their land because of rising sea levels (see 'Vanuatu village relocated due to rising sea level' on ABC Australia), this chain of 83 or so islands and islets also happens to sit on the edge of the Paficic Tectonic plate:


From this article published in Der Spiegel:

Klaus Töpfer, a German politician with Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Party (CDU) and the UNEP's executive director at the time, bleakly noted: "The melting and receding of sea ice and the rising of sea levels, storms surges and the like are the first manifestations of big changes underway which eventually will touch everyone on the planet."

A climate-change report to be published next year will present evidence that the world's oceans will rise between 0.5 and 1.2 meters (1.5 and four feet) by 2100, with global warming already increasing sea levels by 1.8 millimeters (0.07 inches) a year. However, that amount is not much when compared to the natural fluctuations at work here. Like most inhabitants of the South Pacific, those of Vanikoro must contend with sea-level fluctuations of some 20 centimeters (eight inches) caused by currents in the Pacific, such as the climate phenomenon called El Niño.

Earthquakes and tsunamis strike Vanikoro regularly, but people here are at the mercy of the forces of nature in a longer-term way, as well: On its slowly sinking course, the Australian Plate is dragging Vanikoro along into the depths.

That the UN had been premature in declaring the villagers on Tegua to be climate change refugees became clear when a large earthquake caused the island to shoot back out of the water in 2009. "The coconut plantation has been on dry land since then," Ballu [Valérie Ballu, 44, a geodesist from Paris] says.

However, she points out that, for the people there, it doesn't much matter which specific physical phenomena forced them to abandon their village. What frustrates Ballu is that a climate-change adaptation fund helped them resettle in a new village, but in a location hardly better than the original one. "It's at a lower elevation," Ballu says. "Spring tides or tsunamis can still reach it."

Which brings up an interesting point: no matter how one may quibble at the details, the fact of the matter is that changing weather patterns are impacting communities around the world, perhaps none moreso than the island nation of Vanuatu.

Although the archipelago "luxuriates in a tropical maritime climate with characteristic uniform temperature, high humidity and variable rainfall"(1), its island communities must deal with intensifying tropical storms, shifting rainfall distribution patterns, and alternating drought & floods as the El Nino and La Nina cycles also intensify.


Photo: Vanuatu from the air (photo courtesy

Freshwater is becoming increasingly scarce and many upland watersheds are being deforested and degraded. Proper waste disposal and water and air pollution are also increasingly troublesome issues around urban areas and large villages.

Additionally, the influence of consumer culture which western development has brought to the islands is shifting traditional cultural behavior patterns & values, sowing the seeds of disconnecting peoples from the land they have lived so closely with for millennia.

On the bright side, in 2006 the Happy Planet Index published by the New Economics Foundation and Friends of the Earth environmentalist group estimated Vanuatu to be the most ecologically efficient country in the world to achieve high well-being. 

Despite the challenges faced by these island communities, we take it as a good sign that the WELCOME sign on the airport wall reads: THE WORLD'S HAPPIEST COUNTRY.



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