The Pacific's battle to keep heads above water

Three Samoan boys take on water while paddling their boat by the Moata'a mangroves. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Jacinda Ardern has called climate change "my generation's nuclear-free moment" - and it is the Pacific in the firing line. Sam Sachdeva reports from Apia on the serious climate change challenges facing the region and how Ardern's government plans to lend a hand.

As far as Mondays go, it seemed hard to beat: three boys, a rickety boat with a wooden paddle, and a picturesque spot for a swim by the Moataa mangroves in Apia.

Then, disaster: their vessel started taking on water, and they slowly began to sink beneath the surface.

For the MPs and rest of the New Zealanders watching, it was great entertainment, with the children laughing and in no real danger so close to land.

But the situation hinted at a more serious reality: the Pacific is taking on water, and it is the next generation who will suffer the consequences if nothing is done.

Asi Tuiataga James Fa'afili Blakelock, 79, used to live in the village right by the mangroves, until the rising water levels forced him and others to move to higher ground.

"We have the seawater on the other side and we have our houses and this water behind all of us - it's sort of chasing us, telling us 'get away from here'."

Blakelock, a former Samoan police commissioner, told the Kiwi delegation he and many other "oldies" still thought back to their times in the mangroves.

"I have many fond memories of growing up here, where these mangroves and the stream were our playground for swimming and fishing.

"The freshwater rock poll was the only source of clean water, and there was an abundance of fish and shellfish for village family needs from the mangroves, stream and the sea."

Now, the effects of climate change have eroded the shoreline, worsened flooding, and reduced the bounty of marine life that used to make its way into the area for locals to catch.

"There were a lot of fishes, crabs and mullets, came all the way from the sea, but none of them are here any more," Blakelock said.

Crucially, the rising water has also reduced the safety of an old walkway connecting villagers to the main road.

'We don't question climate change, we live it'

It was a tangible example of why tackling climate change is so pressing for Samoa and neighbouring countries, and why Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made the issue her focus during her first day in the Pacific.

At a meeting with Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, Ardern announced New Zealand would provide $3 million in additional support to help the country's recovery from tropical cyclone Gita.

Gita may be a sign of things to come, with more frequent storms and rising sea levels meaning those in the Pacific could be hit more badly more often - despite making a minimal contribution themselves to greenhouse gas levels.

Speaking at a climate change lunch organised for Ardern's visit, Conservation International's Pacific oceans and climate change manager Cherelle Jackson said there was no denying the impact of more extreme weather on the region.

"We do not need to delve into the challenges of climate change, because we in the Pacific do not question it, we live it.

"You only have to look at the stripped driveway as you drove up see the wrecked fales [houses] in your neighbourhoods to know that climate change is very real for our people, and it will become even more real for our children as they grow up."

"Actually, if you think about the importance of that historic nuclear-free moment, that moment was as important for our Pacific neighbours as it was for us, and that speaks to the importance of us tackling climate change as a region, together, side by side."

Ardern has made the plight of the Pacific a focal point when speaking about climate change, often calling it "my generation's nuclear-free moment" - a sentiment she explained in detail to the audience.

"This is a moment in time for New Zealand to demonstrate it's willing to stand on an international stage and advocate what's right for the future of New Zealand and the next generation.

"Actually, if you think about the importance of that historic nuclear-free moment, that moment was as important for our Pacific neighbours as it was for us, and that speaks to the importance of us tackling climate change as a region, together, side by side."

New Zealand "does not take it as a given that we're on a trajectory that cannot be stopped", she said; there was still time to halt it.

But as Ardern acknowledged, that will require New Zealand to meet its own obligations regarding emissions, which continue to rise.

The Government has laid out plans to establish a climate change commission and have New Zealand reach net zero emissions by 2050, and Climate Change Minister James Shaw said there was an increasing awareness amongst New Zealanders of the need for action.

"I think Kiwis have figured out that climate change isn't something that's happening in the future, somewhere else to someone else: it's happening now, to us, at home, and that actually brings home to us what it does mean in the islands and with our nearest neighbours."

"The overriding principle is that we want people to be able to live with dignity in their homelands," Shaw said, warning of the potential scenarios if the Paris Agreement's goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius was not reached.

Questions around territorial integrity, exclusive economic sea zones, migration: "It's a massive challenge," Shaw said, and one that New Zealand and the Pacific needed to discuss together.

"This is not about something we want to do to you but with you."

Environment vs economy?

The challenge is also about balancing environmental factors with the need for Pacific economies to thrive.

The problems with Moataa's mangroves started with the reclamation of land for the location of what is now the Taumeasina Island Resort - the very location where Ardern's delegation is staying.

"These things don't need to be mutually exclusive, and that's why we've often opted as a country to work on a bilateral basis to fund environmental projects so we can make sure we do get down into that level of detail, making sure they are sustainable projects that will have a long-term benefit," Ardern said of environmental and economic considerations.

In Moataa, progress is slow but positive: a project more than a decade in the making is finally underway to conserve the remaining mangroves and rehabilitate the damaged areas.

Importantly, there are also plans to construct a new, elevated walkway to allow "flushing" of the wetland and improve water quality, while providing a climate-proof route for locals.

Samoa, and the other Pacific nations, will also need a lift in the levels of support from New Zealand and others if they are to keep their heads above water.