Climate change: A matter of life and death
Bangkok - When Ursula Rakova talks about her homeland, her eyes light up. "We always had a good life," she says. But those days are over.
Rakova has abandoned the Carteret Islands, which are part of Papua New Guinea, because she really had no choice.
The islands are sinking into the sea, which is rising partly as the result of increased carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions caused by man.
Rakova's island, Huene, has now become two islands after a stretch of land remained under water following a storm.
‘Islands will be gone soon’
Along the beach, palms are falling into the water, because their roots can no longer keep them standing upright while the soil under them is washed away.
"It's hardly worth looking them up in an Atlas. They'll soon be gone," Rakova says.
The perils of ice melt and rising sea levels from global warming are a key focus of UN climate talks going on in Durban, where negotiators are seeking the way forward after the Kyoto Protocol expires in December 2012.
The activist Rakova shows its effect on her part of the world in videos placed on YouTube, in the hope of shaking the world into action - in particular, negotiators on climate change.
"We slake our thirst only with coconut milk. All the freshwater sources are contaminated with seawater," Rakova told a climate conference in Bali in 2007. "At high tide, our gardens are under water, and the salt destroys everything."
The islanders planted mangroves for years to buttress the coastline and made breakwaters using mussel shells, but they lost the battle against the sea.
"People now live almost exclusively off fish and coconuts," says Paul Tobasi, another former resident.
"Before that, we grew sweet potatoes and other things. All of that is gone, because the soil is saline."
The sweet potato fields are now home to stingrays and sharks.
Several months ago, another seven families gave up the unequal battle to move to Bougainville Island. Huene's former population of 2 500 has declined sharply.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is anticipating a rise in sea level of up to 59cm by the end of the century. A rise of this order would spell the end of many low-lying island nations.
But even on higher-lying islands like Fiji and the Solomon Islands, much of the islands' life is played out along the coastline, as has been written by Patrick Nunn, professor of Oceanic Geoscience at the University of South Pacific on Fiji.
These islands have also been hit hard by climate change. Right across the 22 Pacific Island nations that are home to 7 million people, the changes are clearly visible.
The Australian government's Pacific Climate Change Science Programme has provided evidence of this in a recent study.
"Already, people in Pacific Islands and East Timor are experiencing changes in their climate such as higher temperatures, shifts in rainfall patterns, changing frequencies of extreme events and rising sea levels," it says.
"These changes are affecting people's lives and livelihoods, as well as important industries such as agriculture and tourism."
Concrete examples provide a more dramatic picture: in Samoa, with 180 000 inhabitants, the sea level has risen by 4 millimetres a year since 1993. In Tuvalu, with a population of 10 500, it has gone up by 5mm annually and in Tonga, with 105 000, by 6mm.
Kiribati, the Cook Islands and the Marshall Islands have been similarly affected. Some are experiencing higher rainfall and flooding, others less rain and resulting drought periods.
The outlook is frightening for all. The Australian study notes that sea levels will continue to rise, ocean acidification continues, and there will be more hot days, more extreme rainfall and less frequent but more intense cyclones.
Winds are up to 11% stronger, and there is 20% more rain across a swath of 100km from the eye of the storm. Sea levels could rise up to 15cm by 2030.
These effects are being felt in other regions. India and Bangladesh were still arguing over ownership of the uninhabited New Moore or South Talpatti Island, when it sank beneath the waves.
In a couple of decades, the Maldives could also disappear. President Mohammed Nasheed summoned his entire cabinet to an underwater session two years ago to draw attention to the problem in a successful media exercise.
Ursula Rakova urges climate negotiators to limit the emission of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. "For us it's a question of life and death. Carrying on as before will break our hearts," she says.