Seychelles gets sinking feeling

2009-12-17 11:28

Denis Island - Camille Hoareau stands on Denis Island's beach of creamy-white sand, exactly where trees used to grow a few years ago and where the fish will soon swim if global warming surges on.

"See those? They all went down recently," he says, pointing to the upturned roots of casuarina trees felled by the ever-advancing beach.

Hoareau believes this small privately-owned coralline island in the north of the Seychelles archipelago has shrunk by a few acres already since he became estate manager seven years ago.

"The highest point of the island is about 2.5m, so it doesn't take long for an island like this one to be swallowed up," he says.

Scientific analyses factoring in melting glaciers and ice caps, added water from Greenland and Antarctica and thermal expansion of warming ocean water predict that sea levels could rise globally by up to two metres this century.

For many, climate change remains a slightly abstract notion that may one day involve minor sacrifices such as driving electric cars and buying solar panels.

Existential question

But for the Seychellois and other people living on low-lying islands, climate change is a tangible issue that literally knocks on their front door every morning and poses a very existential question.

"Where will the water be in 10, 15 years? Global warming has changed our point of view on a lot of things," says Paul Horner, the manager of Denis Island resort.

"The waves are already lapping my front yard so now I'm building a home for the children in the mountains" on one of the Indian Ocean archipelago's granitic islands.

A two-metre rise in water levels would easily flood the runways of the international airport - which brings in the tourists that account for 80 percent of the country's foreign currency earnings - and put the capital Victoria at risk.

As a global deal to radically curb carbon emissions in Copenhagen looks anything but certain, the Seychelles fears that tourists will soon require diving gear to enter their rooms in the archipelago's many luxury hotels.

"Time has run out... Even if we are given a very large sum of money, how are we going to prevent a world heritage site like Aldabra atoll from going under?," asks Seychelles Environment and Transport Minister Joel Morgan.

'It's about people taking responsibility'

Pacific, Caribbean and Indian Ocean islands such as Barbados, Kiribati and the Seychelles feel let down by the world's rich, big-polluting countries whose elites like to spend their holidays on their beaches.

At a summit in New York in September, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) issued a declaration scathing the planet's powerhouses for sealing their doom by pussyfooting around the issue of carbon emissions.

We are "profoundly disappointed by the lack of apparent ambition within the international climate change negotiations to protect... vulnerable countries, their peoples, culture, land and ecosystems from the impacts of climate change", they said.

At the key UN climate talks involving 190 nations in Copenhagen, small islands were the first to put forward a draft calling for huge global carbon emissions and target a cap of 1.5 or 2°C in global warming.

Several days into the meeting, island states were doing what their best to make their voices heard.

A teenage resident of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific asked Australia to welcome her nation's future climate refugees. 

'Passionate appeal'

The tiny Pacific archipelago Tuvalu took on giants China and India and called for a suspension of the conference, and the president of the Maldives, the famed Indian Ocean tourist paradise, made another passionate appeal, weeks after holding a cabinet meeting under water.

For his part, Seychelles President James Michel hopes to impress on world powers that they too have a lot to lose from unchecked climate changes, albeit a few decades after small islands have been wiped off the map.

"We will lose big, but we will continue to argue our case before the world's powers. We feel that we are seriously underestimating the potential impacts of climate change, which may end up costing the planet a lot more," he said in a statement to AFP.

Michel's special advisor on climate change Rolph Payet, whose role as lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won him the Nobel Peace Prize along with former US vice president Al Gore in 2007, takes the view that small nations can achieve the most by themselves.

"Even if we do something now, we won't see the impact for another 20-25 years, but we have to act," he says. "We are pushing for everyone to do that, to invest in sustainability, like restoring the coastline."

'We plant as many trees as possible'

Looking at the fallen trees rimming his shrinking paradise island, Camille Hoareau is wasting no time and working relentlessly to win his own race against the climate clock.

"Here we have a scheme on Denis island, where conservation is integrated in the way the hotel is run. Tourists contribute to the effort in the price they pay and it's becoming more and more important to them," he explains.

"The best protection against erosion is trees, so we have to plant as many as possible... I don't know what's going to come out of Copenhagen, but right now it's about people taking responsibility."