By Richard Musgrove

Pacific islanders have been on the move for 50,000 years, as explorers, as settlers and as traders.

But now that cultural phenomenon has an existential edge, particularly for those on vulnerable, low-lying islands, as the insidious effects of climate change manifest – heat stress, cyclones, floods, and droughts, fisheries decline, sea level rise and salt-water intrusion into soils and drinking water.

Hard choices must be made. Do the region’s 13 million people stay and adapt, or leave ancestral homelands for safer, drier, shores? The majority would choose to stay, according to ‘Regional population dynamics and mobility trends in the Pacific, the recently-released first report of the 2-year Pacific-lead Climate Mobility research programme.

Leaving can mean loss of cultural identity, says, co-author, and Cook Islander, Professor Yvonne Underhill-Sem, of the University of Auckland (UA). Relocation is not seen as a solution, she adds.


Focussed on the population dynamics of the region, the report presents analyses of population data collected on each country by SPC (Pacific Community, formerly South Pacific Commission), and provides a baseline for the overall research programme, says Underhill-Sem.

The programme itself explores where and how climate change impacts could influence islanders’ decisions to stay or move away – within countries, around the region, or elsewhere (eg. New Zealand, Australia, USA). Centred on community case studies, the work is a collaboration between the Universities of Auckland and Waikato and NGO Mana Pacific.

Sixteen communities were examined, across seven Pacific countries, covering the range of mobility types and environmental spaces from coastal highlands to urban settlements. More than 1000 people were interviewed in groups or as individuals throughout the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Niue, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga and Tuvalu, New Zealand and Australia.

“The whole focus of the project is to give some light to the ways in which these communities are thinking about mobility as a result of climate change,” says Underhill-Sem. And she continues –” the report’s regional population dynamics analysis gives us a sense of the numbers” and records inbuilt population momentum, showing there is still a need for continued investment, development and infrastructure.

The programme is the first of its kind and is funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).

“We worked with Pacific tertiary institutions as also a way of providing or building the research capacity in those places” says Underhill Sem.

What is climate mobility?

Climate-related environmental threats force either movement, adaptation or both. Climate mobility refers to individual or community decisions to move within a country in response to flooding or sea-level rise, or to migrate temporarily (e.g. via labour mobility schemes) or permanently.

Sea level rise is the key concern, with 90% of Pacific people live within 5km of the coast.

Climate change options for the nations of Tuvalu and Kiribati have been in the news in recent years but climate mobility has a longer history. The Tuluun people of PNG’s Carteret Islands, 86km northeast of Bougainville, were early climate refugees. The Carterets are a group of six islets on a coral atoll supporting around 3000 people, 1.5m above sea level and decreasing. In 2003 many Tuluuns were moved, by the PNG government, from low-lying coastal villages to higher ground on nearby Bougainville.

But Tuluuns were not the first recorded climate refugees. That sad distinction goes to the people of Saibai, a small island, 4km off PNG’s coast, with a high point of 1.7m above sea level. In 1947 — 76 years ago – six families decided that increasing floods caused by more frequent king tides, and saltwater contamination of drinking water and soil were too much, and sailed to the north-eastern tip of Cape York, Far North Queensland, to found Bamaga and Seisia, says Torres Strait Islander, Patrick Mau.

The Torres Strait was not part of the climate mobility programme but faces the same threats as Pacific countries, including 2-3 times the global average annual sea level rise.

The research

Surveys were undertaken using unique cultural communications approaches, different in each community.

Most interviews were done in the local indigenous language, or, in Tok Pisin. The Pacific supports 1300 languages, 840 of which are found in Papua New Guinea.

Researchers had to be “of the place” – either born on the island, had families there or had married into that space. Leveraging off these relationships, and positioning themselves in relation to heritage, contributed to the culturally safe space needed for successful surveys.

Culturally-safe spaces were also created through traditional meeting formats. ‘Maraurau’, is a Cook Island term for such a meeting, where participants talk about their heritage, hierarchies are understood and options are provided for anyone to speak, to converse and to challenge. Each community visited had a version of this meeting style, and their own word for it.

The team would also introduce the concept of ‘generationality’ – histories and futures positioned in generational terms: “We invited people to think through the lens of being in different generations,” says Underhill-Sem. Youth, for example, would be asked: “Where do you want to go? What are your decisions”, then asked to imagine being an adult, a parent, or a grandparent? “What will you be? What will it look like? What decisions do you need to make to get there?” Such questions allowed them to consider the issues and the conversations they needed to have, Underhill Sem says.

Questions then focussed on observed changes in the environment with responses detailing cyclones, tsunamis, king tides, rainfall, and changes in fish stocks or landscapes, including the decrease in arable land for food production due to coastal erosion, runoff and soil salination. The focus was clearly on their capacity to earn a living, including migration off the island for work.

“Climate change’ is not a phrase used by the people”, says Tongan Dr Nailasikau Halatuituia, of ManaPacific, who conducted individual interviews with members of 8 families, on Siesia, Tongatapu, Tonga. I wanted them to explain to me how they live on the island, and what had changed”, said Halatuituia. ‘Climate mobility’ did not have come up – migration to earn a living, or educate their children, did, he says. None of the 8 families were prepared to migrate – for them it was more about adaptation.

Large-scale population growth (termed ‘population momentum’) was also a major thread with some communities, says Underhill-Sem, alongside climate impacts, as was the capacity of health and education services to support growth. Population momentum is always going to be an issue, she says, inseparable from climate mobility. By 2050, a mere generation away, the region could be home to 20 million people, she adds.

“The insights that have been shared with us show a deep understanding of the challenges faced by communities, as well as careful thought about future options”, says Underhill-Sem.

The case studies will be published in the next few months.