Learning from adaptation in low-lying islands

August 31, 2023
four people facing the camera

L-R Choi Yeeting, Aishath Azfa, Teresa Lifuka-Drecala and Kabay Tamu at Climate Adaptation 2023


EXPERTS from low-lying islands threatened by climate change brush off the “sinking” narrative.

Speaking at the recent Climate Adaptation 2023 conference, panellists from the Torres Strait, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Maldives agreed it’s a question put to them often.

“Is the Maldives sinking? We’ve been around for a long time,” said Aishath Azfa, a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.

“There is no evidence that we’re sinking. Life can be difficult on a small island. But in terms of adaptation, we have a lot of lessons that we take for granted and it’s time that we talk about it and bring it to the world stage.”

Choi Yeeting, National Climate Change Coordinator and Senior Policy Advisor on Climate Change for the Government of Kiribati currently studying at Flinders University, said the term sinking had been politicised and while it had been useful in elevating the risk of climate change in the public consciousness and even in attracting support for adaptation or mitigation measures on the ground, it missed the point.

“We know sea levels are rising and extreme weather events will be more frequent and more severe but that doesn’t tell us that Kiribati is sinking. It ignores the fact that there are measures that are being implemented,” Mr Yeeting said.

“We are pioneers of adaptation because of our remoteness and vulnerability, limited resources and capacity, so we do things practically.”

Teresa Lifuka-Drecala is an NGO representative and climate justice advocate from Tuvalu and currently a Masters candidate at the University of Melbourne.

“We’re living resilience. It has become a normality for us,” she said.

Torres Strait Regional Councillor Kabay Tamu had a different response. Cr Tamu is a member of the Climate Change Adaption and Environment Committee and quoted his grandparents:

“This is your land, look after it. This is your sea, look after it.”

Managing the impact of climate change, however, was more difficult in the Torres Strait which is dependent on Australia, he said.

Panellists agreed that the narrative of ‘sinking’ islands assumes that local people have no capacity to adapt. The actions and sentiment of low-lying islands demonstrated the contrary, panellists said, but each island nation was different with different challenges.


The panel session was moderated by Professor Jon Barnett, Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow in the School of Geography at Melbourne University who also delivered a closing keynote at Climate Adaptation 2023 on “What gives me hope”.

Professor Jon Barnett at a lectern with a large screen showing presentation

Professor Jon Barnett at Climate Adaptation 2023.


Hope was an emerging topic in climate change research, which he said was important because it is a positive emotion that helps enable action on climate change.

There are “fingerprints of hope for atolls” in their diplomacy, the way they are using international law, in their policy capacity, in their enduring cultures and in all the possible ways that they could adapt given appropriate support from the international community.

There has been far too little investment in the idea or the practice of adaptation in atolls, and far too little research to learn from existing practices, he said.

Local knowledge and experience

In the panel session, Ms Azfa said, having been one of the first if not the first country to raise public awareness of the risk of climate change to low-lying islands, the Maldives had developed into a dynamic island country. From creating artificial islands to strengthening efficient transport, the Maldives had shown its capacity to adapt to climate change and to develop an integrated, cohesive society that ensured access to services across islands and atolls.

Land has also been reclaimed in Tuvalu, including the land where the convention centre which hosted the 2018 Pacific Islands Forum.

Tapping into indigenous knowledge and traditional ways where each family or clan has a role, resisting internal migration by encouraging young people to look after their resources and how to sustain them, was important in maintaining atoll life, said Ms Drecala.

In Kiribati, Mr Yeeting said how NGOs work with local communities was critical to progress.

“Science is not always a good ice breaker,” he said. “It takes us a paragraph to explain climate change in our language.”

Which led to the development of a glossary of climate change terms for Government and NGOs to use with communities. The glossary of terms helped local communities relate to NGOs they were working with.

The Government sees mitigation as an opportunity which supports adaptation actions.

“We’re looking at renewable energy – mitigation and productivity. What we need is availability of data to inform key strategies and build capability around technical officers to work with the data and interpret for strategy and target key initiatives.”

The Torres Strait faced a different set of problems, said Cr Tamu.

The rights to culture and life on low-lying islands in the Torres Strait had shone a spotlight on the region, he said.

The first thing the community wants is to protect their home with sea walls, he said.

“We have done three of the low-lying islands with sea wall works. There are another three to be done. It’s the mindset in the community, all they talk about is sea walls.

“We need other adaptation solutions. Any new infrastructure comes to the community now has to be high or be built up on higher ground. That you’re moving three families from three homes, we believe that solutions we have will work. We don’t talk about relocation.”

He added that the Torres Strait islands had been studied for so long with so many reports telling islanders what to do, what they need now is the opportunity to implement adaptation strategies.


Professor Jon Barnett’s presentation “What gives me hope” is up on the Climate Systems Hub conference webpage here.

See also his Nature Climate Change paper from June 2023, co-authored with Colette Mortreux, Sergio Jarillo and Katharine H. Greenaway, “Reducing personal climate anxiety is key to adaptation”.



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