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Islanders flee rising sea levels

As worries about climate change grow, a community in the Pacific Ocean is already dealing with the effects.

A Maldivian woman sits atop a section of a dyke built to protect the tiny island from the ravages of the sea in Male on July 12, 2001. The Maldives, like the Carteret Islands, is in danger of sinking. (Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi/Reuters)

BRISBANE, Australia — As a teenager in the Carteret Islands, a picturesque atoll in the eastern Papua New Guinea archipelago, Ursula Rakova walked to school and church along a sandy road, passing through the center of a thriving community that produced taro, a staple food.

Thirty years on, the taro plantations of Han, Rakova's home island, are gone — swamped by rising seas. The road, too, is under water. “Where we once walked,” she told GlobalPost, “we now have to paddle a canoe.”

Two thousand miles to the east of the Carterets, and roughly halfway between Hawaii and Australia, Tuvalu — population: 12,000 — is often billed as the first community in the southwestern Pacific Ocean likely to be devoured by the region’s rising and increasingly turbulent seas.

Tuvalu's situation is indeed dire: Seawater and the saltwater table — the level at which underground potable water turns salty — already threaten coconut and taro farming. But according to the latest studies of the region’s changing conditions, Tuvalu won’t actually disappear for another 1,000 years, though it will become uninhabitable long before then. 

GlobalPost's Stephan Faris writes about efforts by Tuvalu to cut its carbon output, in order to shame bigger polluters — before it sinks. 

Carteret islanders, meantime, are already dealing with a watery apocalypse.

The islands form a horseshoe-shaped atoll (population: 3,300) with a total area of 150 acres (about 110 American football fields) and maximum height of 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) above sea level. Much of the little land the community lives on is already awash. Islanders deal with a higher incidence of malaria as the atoll’s volcanic foundations slowly collapse, and trees and taro, coconut and banana crops surrender to ever more violent storms. When their plight began to become more desperate some 20 years ago, islanders built sea walls and planted mangroves to break the waves’ advance. “But recently,” said Rakova, “it has become evident that these measures aren’t going to work in the long run.”

Over the past six months, about 800 islanders have either fled or begun planning their families’ escape to drier land at Tinputz, on Bougainville, the largest nearby island in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

“By 2015,” said Rakova, “we’ll have to move all the rest, mainly the older ones. Most of the younger ones either have already gone or are now making plans to leave.”

The Carterets, populated about 200 years ago by settlers from Bougainville, have a largely matriarchal society: women inherit much of the land.

Rakova, 43, a soft-spoken but clearly strong-willed graduate of PNG University in Port Moresby (social studies and psychology), heads Tulele Peisa, a nongovernmental organization leading the evacuation.