Forgotten plight of Australia’s Torres Strait islanders: their land is being swallowed by rising sea

Hundreds of people may be forced to abandon homes where their families have lived for generations

The islands which dot the sparkling waters of the Torres Strait, off the far north-east of Australia, were the birthplace of indigenous land rights. In 1992, five islanders led by Eddie Mabo won a landmark High Court case which erased the notion that Australia was unoccupied when the British arrived. But more than two decades on, the land for which they fought is being swallowed by the sea.

The low-lying islands – some of them closer to Papua New Guinea than the Australian mainland – are at risk of becoming uninhabitable as a result of rising seas, a report warned today. In the coming decades, hundreds of people may be forced to abandon homes where their families have lived for generations.

Yet the threat seems barely to register in Canberra, which only recently – after years of lobbying by the islanders – released funds for the repair of seawalls on Saibai and Boigu, two of the worst affected communities.

The region is facing a similar challenge to South Pacific nations such as Kiribati and Tuvalu. But while the plight of such countries is well known, few people outside Australia have heard of the Torres Strait. Many Australians would have difficulty locating it on the map; the remote area – accessible only by light plane – receives few visitors.

The report, by the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA), says “even small increases in sea level due to climate change will have an immense impact on Torres Strait communities, potentially threatening their viability”. The threat to the 20-odd populated islands “needs to be fully appreciated by governments”, it adds.

READ MORE: Australia's climate change victims
The find that could rewrite Australian history

Already, communities are experiencing abnormally high king tides, which flood homes, roads and graveyards. The tides, often accompanied by storm surges, cause erosion and poison gardens where locals grow root crops.

The Torres Strait Islanders, who have more in common with the Melanesians of Papua New Guinea than Aborigines on the Australian mainland, are a resourceful bunch. However, the report makes clear that more funds are needed. “They’re pretty adaptable,” said Donna Green, a climate change scientist who has worked in the area. “But at some point, if you don’t have the financial or human resources, you become vulnerable, and they’re already feeling pretty stretched.” The sea walls, she added, were a short-term fix.

Some of the islands are granite or volcanic, encompassing higher land to which locals could, theoretically, relocate. But six are low-lying coral cays or swampy mud islands. On Saibai, for instance, residents are squeezed into a narrow strip between the ocean and a swamp. They have already sandbagged their families’ burial plots.

The prospect of relocation is not one which people like to contemplate. Joseph Elu, chairman of the TSRA, told ABC radio that they were unsure whether to try to adapt or accept an unpalatable reality. “The biggest question is, what do people want to do with their lives? Is it good being resilient, or are we trying to stand in front of something that will wash over us any time?”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner / Caretaker / Storeman

£15500 - £17680 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A position has become available...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Sales - SaaS B2B

£60000 - £120000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This conference call startup i...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital and print design a...

Day In a Page

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk