Limits to Climate Change Adaptation for Low-Lying Communities in the Torres Strait

Media type: 
McNamara, K.E.
Smithers, S.G.
Westoby R.
Parnell, K.
James Cook University

This report contributes to the understanding of the social and cultural limits to adaptation for small island communities in Torres Strait and elsewhere, elicited through interviews and focus groups with key stakeholders within the selected island communities. It seeks to better understand and define the adaptation strategies that communities and community members in the Torres Strait consider to be appropriate, what resources and required, and how and when particular adaptation strategies might be effective or otherwise. Thus the project provides new and necessary information required to guide culturally appropriate adaptation planning and responses for these communities in the future.

Executive Summary

Over the past decade or so, Torres Strait Islander communities have become increasingly concerned about their exposure to the impacts of climate change, and how they might adapt to the changes that will occur. This project focused on two communities. The first island community involved in this study was Boigu, a low island already inundated by the sea during high spring tides and storm surges. It is one of the lowest-lying inhabited Torres Strait islands and the community there is thus likely to among the first to experience the seainundation impacts of climate change. Erub, the second island community participating in this study, is a volcanic ‘high’ island, but as is common, significant infrastructure, housing settlements and cultural sites lie on the low coastal fringe. By focusing on these two islands and different island types, the information gathered will be relevant to many other low and high island communities in the Torres Strait, and elsewhere. Using a participatory approach and guided by the sustainable livelihoods framework this project sought to ascertain from community members: 

<!--[if !supportLists]-->·         <!--[endif]-->The nature and range of changes that have occurred in their local environment and community, and to their socio-cultural practises as a result of what they understand to be climate-related factors;
·         What livelihood assets do they possess or have access to that allow them to sustain their livelihoods at present;
·         How will these livelihood assets be affected by climate-related changes; and
·         When will the limits to adaptation be reached – when can meaningful livelihoods be no longer sustained in the communities no matter what adaptation strategies are adopted.

A plethora of changes in climatic related patterns were identified by Elders, Aunties and young Islanders on Boigu and Erub, including increasing severity of high tides and inundation events, sea level rises, changes in weather patterns (rainfall and winds), greater frequency of extreme weather events, and shifts in mating seasons and migration of marine and terrestrial fauna.

On both islands a comprehensive range of livelihood assets were identified, with strong emphasis on both islands placed on the importance and strength of social capital (although some risks to this were identified), and deficits in physical (shoreline protection, water supply infrastructure) and natural capital (elevated land at villages). Although incomes, access to education and other social services etc are limited compared to those in mainland centres, financial and human livelihood assets were not considered limiting – possibly reflecting the engagement with many participants with a hybrid economy in which the market is only one sector. 

In the case of Boigu, a series of natural, physical and socio-cultural limits to climate change adaptation were discussed. The low elevation of the island and concern that the construction of necessary coastal fortification would not proceed within a necessary timeframe was consistently identified as the major limit to adaptation – without this need being addressed the longer-term future of the island and community could not be assured. Although the lack of a seawall might be interpreted as a barrier to adaptation in other contexts, it was consistently identified as a limit in this case. 

On Erub the community perceived there to be fewer immediate and conspicuous limits to adaptation; nonetheless several limits were raised in interviews including issues surrounding water security and the failure of significant infrastructure investment to overcome this to date. Although higher ground exists on Erub, participants from villages on the coastal fringe shared their distress that they may be relocated from their traditional lands and moved upslope – and their belief that the availability of higher ground would discount the consideration of alternatives that might allow them to remain where they are by decisionmakers. 

Although deficits in physical capital were seen as presently defining the limits to adaptation in both Communities, it was the potential influence of resultant climate change impacts on social capital if this physical capital was not provided – specifically diminished cultural and spiritual connections to place that were identified as the ultimate (and unconscionable) limits to adaptation. 

Please cite this report as: 
McNamara, KE, Smithers, SG, Westoby, R & Parnell, K 2012, Limits to climate change adaptation for low-lying communities in the Torres Strait, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, 87 pp.