Australia: Aboriginal Communities Will Be Most Hurt By Climate Change

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By Rosslyn Beeby

From The Canberra Times, November 26, 2007

Australia’s northern Aboriginal communities will bear the brunt of climate change, with increases in water-borne diseases and loss of traditional food sources, an international report says.

In the Torres Strait Islands, at least 8000 people will lose their homes if sea levels rise by 1m. Community leaders have already reported increased storm surges with “metres of beach disappearing every week”.

The report, by Friends of the Earth International, says Australia’s indigenous communities are on “the front line of climate change” with few resources to combat threats to their homes and livelihoods.

It estimates more than 100,000 people in remote Aboriginal communities across northern Australia face serious health risks from malaria, dengue fever and heat stress, as well as loss of food sources from floods, drought and more intense bushfires.

Assessing impacts on indigenous communities and small-scale farmers in nine countries, the report describes climate change as comparable in scale to war in the widespread loss of homes, food and water it has already caused in poorer regions of South America, the Pacific Islands, Asia and Africa.

“More people are being displaced in the world today as a result of environmental problems than because of conflict, and many of them are climate refugees,” the report says.

“Climate change is no longer a potential threat. It is now an established reality of life on our planet.”

The report says indigenous communities worldwide are most vulnerable to climate change impacts because their livelihoods directly depend on land and water.

Rising sea levels on six islands of the Pacific nation of Tuvalu have made soils too salty for islanders to grow food, with communities “adapting” by planting their taro crops in buckets.

“Tuvalu is the first country forced to evacuate residents because of rising sea levels,” the report says, with the Tuvalu Government establishing a climate migration program with New Zealand.

“Nowhere near enough is being done to stop the root causes of climate change,” the report says.

“Overconsumption particularly in industrialised countries continues unabated, and automobile, mining, oil and now biofuel corporations are raking in the profits. This drives home the need for a global, diverse movement to tackle climate change and demand climate justice.”

The report warns sea level rises of between 1m and 2m along Australia’s northern coastline would “wipe out dozens of populated homelands and islands, particularly those in the Gulf of Carpentaria and adjacent Torres Strait”.

Darwin-based northern rivers ecologist Stuart Blanch said the impact of climate change on northern Australia would be “immense” but was generally underestimated.

“Everything in northern Australia is at risk not just iconic sites like the Great Barrier Reef and the Kakadu wetlands.”

Over the next 50 years, rising sea levels would flood more than four million hectares of coastal freshwater wetlands, placing barramundi fisheries and other income sources for Aboriginal communities at risk, he said.

Dr Blanch, director of WWF Australia’s northern conservation campaigns, said it was vital to end large-scale land clearing in areas such as the Daly River and Tiwi Islands to reduce greenhouse emissions.

The Friends of the Earth report says although most of Australia is likely to have the resources to adapt to climate change, Aboriginal communities “are not so fortunate” because of poor health services, inadequate infrastructure and widespread unemployment. Australian farmers quoted by the report claim conventional agribusiness farming methods are incompatible with hotter, drier conditions and could turn productive farmland “into a dust bowl”.

The report, Voices from Communities Affected by Change Change, will be launched today, ahead of the UN global climate forum next week in Bali.

Friends of the Earth spokeswoman Stephanie Long said Australia and other industrialised nations must accept responsibility for deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions within the next 15 years.

“Adaptation should be pro-poor, and protect ecosystems, livelihoods and human security. Community-based adaptation provides the best opportunity to ensure that adaptation projects are culturally, technically and socially appropriate,” she said.