Climate change drives Solomon Islands' people of the sea ashore

Nature and Environment

Life on the water

At high tide, Lau Lagoon's manmade islands barely rise above the waterline. During king tides and
 strong winds, which are becoming increasingly frequent, some islands are now completely submerged.

Nature and Environment

People of the sea

According to oral history, and "wane i asi," or people of the sea, have been living on manmade islands in Lau Lagoon for 18 generations. They are said to have come here to be closer to the sea that provides them with a bountiful supply of fish, and respite from mainland's mosquitoes.

Nature and Environment

The only way is up

As the sea level rises, more and more of the lagoon's residents are building their homes on stilits for a few extra feet of grace.

Nature and Environment

Water babes

Children are raised to feel at home with the ocean lapping at their feet. The only school is on the mainland, so they're used to making daily the journey back and forth across the lagoon.

Nature and Environment

Born sailors

Navigating between the islands and the mainland in tiny dugout canoes with plastic sails is a skill gained early in life and quickly becomes second nature.

Nature and Environment

Stormy weather

Living on the lagoon means being completely exposed to tropical storms. And this one came during what was traditionally the dry season. Lau Lagoon islanders are being forced to contend with increasingly unpredictable weather.

Nature and Environment

Times of change

John Kaia, 52, is chief of the Aenabaolo tribe on the island of Tauba1. He says that over his lifetime he has seen dramatic changes to the climate - and his people's way of life.

Nature and Environment

Swept away

Homes lie ruined in the wake of a large wave event. Here, the community decided to not rebuild - the destruction now comes too frequently and on too great a scale to make it worth while.

Nature and Environment

Fight against time

Living with rising sea levels is an uphill struggle. Essential structures such as this outhouse, only accessible by bridge, require constant maintenance.

Nature and Environment

Abandoned to the waves

The struggle to maintain this outhouse has long since been abandoned. What was once a part of a family home is now an occasional perch for seabirds.

Nature and Environment

New neighbors

Many of Lau Lagoon's people of the sea are tying to relocate to the mainland of Malaita. But they are not always welcome. Land disputes mean construction is halted by court order - as with this church.

Nature and Environment

Fresh start

While some wane e asi struggle for space on the mainland, others are unable to find land there at all, and are building new islands in the lagoon, like this one - still very much a work in progress.

Nature and Environment

Keeping the faith

Religion plays a central role in daily life in Solomon Islands. Prayer and devotional rituals provide solace in trying times. Many have also relied on the church to help them relocate, as state programs fail to get off the ground.

Nature and Environment

Saying goodbye

As Lau Lagoon's islands are abadoned, a way of life that has existed in harmony with nature for generations may be lost forever because of the damage industrialized nations have inflicted on our shared planet.

The inhabitants of Lau Lagoon in Solomon Islands have lived in harmony with nature for generations. Now their entire way of life is vanishing beneath the waves.

Dotted across the Lau Lagoon are close to a hunred tiny sun- and salt-bleached islands, topped with scrubby, wind-bent trees and clusters of homes built from timber and palm fronds. Some are home to as few as five people, others as many as 400. But a growing number are deserted. 

Nature and Environment | 26.06.2017

The Lau Lagoon lies at the northeastern tip of Malaita in the Solomon Islands archipelago in the South Pacific. Unlike the large island of Malaita, the lagoon's atoll is manmade, built from coral heaved up from the lagoon floor and rising an average of just a meter above the high-tide mark. 

Locals say the wane i asi, or people of the sea, first built the islands some 18 generations ago - dating them back to the 17th century - to evade the mosquitoes and disease of the mainland, to be closer to the water that provides them with fish and, some say, to avoid conflict with the wane i tolo, or people of the bush. 

Since then, the wane i asi have constantly repaired and rebuilt their islands. But now, a practice they has sustained them for hundreds of years is becoming a losing battle.

Environment | 23.09.2015
Solomon Islands - Lau Lagoon

At high tide, the Solomon islands lay barely above the waterline

Rising tides 

Climate change means the sea level is rising, storms are intensifying and seasons are becoming unpredictable. Coral is increasingly torn away from the islands and returned to the lagoon floor. These days, repairing them does little more than delay the inevitable. 

Solomon Islands has a population of 560,000 people and a growing number of them are being forced to leave their homes - not just in Lau Lagoon, but also low-lying coastal areas on Malaita, and across the entire atoll, one of the world's largest. 

It has been more than a decade since the island of Tauba in Lau Lagoon was first submerged completely during a high tide.

Tauba Island's residents belong to two different tribes. John Kaia is chief of one of them, the Aenabaolo. At 52, Kaia says he has witnessed the impacts of the changing climate over his lifetime. 

"Before, we used to know the seasons, but now the wind, the rain, the cyclones can come at any time. We don't know when." Kaia says. "Cyclones always used to come when the wind was from the west, now they come even when the wind is from the east."

Solomon Islands - Lau Lagoon

John Kaia says his community's way of life is being transformed completely by climate change

Climate change changes everything 

In July 2015, Cyclone Raquel became the first cyclone on record to hit the South Pacific Ocean in July. It caught Solomon Islanders by surprise and left many villages devastated. 

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But for a community that has long lived in harmony with nature, even more subtle climatic changes have profound consequences. 

"Climate change has not only affected the weather, it has affected everything, the people, the sea, the land, even the food we eat has changed," Kaia says. "People's lives have already changed so much." 

The erratic seasons have forced island farmers to resort to chemical fertilizers, which Kaia believes are "harmful to people's health." 

Even the children's education is impacted. The only route to their school on Malaita is by boat - dugout canoes equipped with tatty plastic sails. Kaia says unpredictable weather has made these daily journeys dangerous.   

"Storms now can happen any day and come very quickly," he says. "The children must be very careful while in their canoes, if the wind hits their sails hard the canoe can roll over very easily." 

Solomon Islands - Lau Lagoon

Routine journeys across the lagoon are becoming increasingly perilous

Competition over land 

All this means is more and more wane i asi are relocating to Malaita. But that comes with its own challenges. 

The Aenabaolo share a parcel of land on the mainland with three other tribes. Yet Aenabaolo families relocating from Tauba Island have become embroiled in a land dispute, and construction of their new homes is currently on hold by court order.

And they are not alone. With more and more communities displaced, Solomon Islands' courts are flooded with such cases. Complicated traditional land tenure structures mean they can take years to resolve. 

And tribal differences can exacerbate disputes. Communities with distinct cultural practices are increasingly being forced to live in close proximity. A recent history of ethnic violence makes that a concern in Solomon Islands.

The country suffered five years of conflict between the Isatabu people of its main island of Guadalcanal and Malaitans settling on the island, until international peacekeepers arrived in 2003. 

Solomon Islands - Lau Lagoon

For a people used to the waves lapping on their doorsteps, giving up life on the water is a wrench

A wrench from home 

Some wane i asi, like the 20 permanent residents of the tiny island of Taluabu, have no claim to land on Malaita at all. For generations, Taluabu's inhabitants have been allowed to farm a parcel of land on the mainland, but landowners have refused them permission to settle there. 

Over the last year, the issue of relocation has moved up the political agenda in Solomon Islands, but there is still a long way to go before government-led plans to safely rehome entire tribes are put into practice. 

In the meantime, NGOs and the Anglican Church of Melanesia have been helping displaced communities find land and start new lives. 

Lau Lagoon islanders with secure new homes on Malaita, or in the county's capital of Honiara on Guadalcanal, are among the lucky ones. 

But settling into life on mainland is a wrench for the people of the sea, and few cut ties with their atoll homes altogether. Most families return at least once a year. These days, Tauba's population swells from around 100 people to upwards of 400 at Christmas.

In late 2016, nongovernmental organization Displacement Solutions sent photojournalist Beni Knight to Lau Lagoon on the island of Malaita to document the challenges facing island dwellers in the area. DW publishes the exclusive essay and photos here. 

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