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These are the disappearing nations

Tuesday 11 May 2021

Parts of the Pacific are threatened by rising tides and extreme weather events. This Photo Essay looks at some of the islands most at risk


Photographer Vlad Sokhin set out eight years ago to capture the effect of climate change on Papua New Guinea. Slowly, his project grew as changes to the Pacific, the largest region on our planet, overwhelmed him.

The project, Warm Waters, now covers 18 territories, stretching from Point Barrow, the northernmost tip of Alaska, to the South Pacific islands of Niue and Tokelau. Some of the places photographed have changed a lot in eight years, some will never recover, and some may be lost entirely.

In his words, “The Earth is indestructible, but it responds in measures to how we treat it.”

Kiribati, where this Photo Essay begins, is a tiny Pacific island nation and is critically threatened by sea level rises, coastal erosion, soil salinisation and extreme weather events. The government is looking for a place to relocate the entire nation if the country disappears under the sea. Some individuals, however, have taken matters into their own hands by seeking “climate refugee” status in countries like New Zealand.

Peia Kararaua, 16, swims in the flooded area of Aberao village that is located in Tarawa atoll, Kiribati. The island nation is one of the countries which is most affected by sea level rise. Many villages become inundated during high tides, making large parts of them uninhabitable.

Teafua Tanu islet on Kiribati, above, has been used by residents of Fakaofo as a Catholic cemetery.

Fast-swimming youths rush to get fish, off South Tarawa in Kiribati.

Above, Hetu, aged eight, lifts up a shark that was caught by local fishermen for “inati” in Fale Island, Fakaofo Atoll, Tokelau.

Inati is a traditional and a very unique community fishing and distribution system that is practised in Tokelau. The system ensures that all families have some fish. All men are required to take part in a fishing activity. The catch is shared equally among people; all family members are counted, and the sharing depends on the number of people in households.

Teresa, aged seven, brought her three-year-old sister Terada, to the lagoon water to play in the water. “When it’s a high tide, the kids usually play near our house, and the whole area gets flooded. They don’t need to walk to the sea,” says their mother. “For me, it’s not that enjoyable, as we had to move our garden further inland of the island, for the sea water not to destroy our crops and taro.”

The government calls Tebunginako village in Abaiang atoll “a barometer for what Kiribati can expect in the future”. Since the 1970s, the villagers have seen the sea rise. Eventually, the erosion was so great that the major part of the village had to be abandoned.

Eliuda Toxok, a shark caller from Messi village, paddles his outrigger canoe in Bismarck Sea while trying to catch a shark. Shark calling is the ancient tradition among the fishermen of New Ireland. Locals say that they see fewer sharks every year, and connect the decline with climate change.

Martha Wokma stands with her nephew near a collapsed logging bridge. “We can’t take this road anymore. We can’t visit our relatives in friends in other villages,” she says. “The logging company made big damage to our village and environment and they never payed any compensation.”

Above left, Dwain, aged 13, holds a bat shot by his grandfather. Bats, normally a delicacy, are a main meal for some villagers on the island of Niue.

Above right, a logging area near Trin village, Turubu inland.

A boy stands on a sea wall, made from logs to keep out the water, in the Marshall Islands.

Above left, Nobert Mor, aged 13, sits on the dead tree while village kids play on the shore.

Right, in Taul village, locals travel in the back of a pickup truck on the logging road in Turubu inland area.

Mark Pokakes, aged 41 and wearing the shirt of Australia’s rugby league team, stands near his house in Pamachau Island in Manus Province of Papua New Guinea.

Pamachau was affected by the king tide that hit the island in 2012. Many houses were damaged by the seawater and a few of them even collapsed. This remote island accommodates just 40 people and their only fresh water comes from rain.

Above left, Tietaake, aged three, sits on a raft that is used to transport residents of Eita village through the flooded areas during high tides.

Children of Etas village on Efate Island watch a water truck delivering drinking water to their village. After Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu in March 2015, many local communities were left without fresh water supplies. International charity Oxfam organised an airport water tank truck to come to the villages around Port Vila and help locals to fill their barrels with drinking water.

Children play on a sea wall in front of a rusty shipwreck in Betio town, South Tarawa, Kiribati. The ship was lifted by king tides and crashed into a sea wall in February 2015.

Debris left after Cyclone Winston. The southern part of Taveuni Island in Fiji was among the areas most affected by the Category 5 cyclone in March 2016. Many villages were completely destroyed and people were left without food for several days, as access to the island was cut off.

Salome, aged six, skip jumps over high-voltage wires in Veicorocoro Settlement, Tailevu Province. After Cyclone Winston hit Fiji in February 2016, there was no power for many weeks in affected areas.

A girl passes the shipwreck in Betio town, South Tarawa, Kiribati, that had been lifted by king tides and crashed into a sea wall in February 2015.

Elva, aged ten, sits on a dead coconut tree near Tina River in Niu Birao village, Solomon Islands. Elva’s family house once stood on the place where the river now flows. In April 2014, the house was one of 21 washed away by a flood along. Many families lost their homes and gardens; some still live in tents. Some children have stopped going to school because their parents no longer have money to pay school fees.

Above left, children play the “cemetery” game on a sandy beach on Ebeye in the Marshall Islands. The overpopulated island is informally known as the “slum of the Pacific”. Disease is a problem for its people, and the mortality rate is one of the highest in the country.

All photographs by Vlad Sokhin/Panos Pictures