As Australia grapples with resettling asylum seekers in the Pacific, the region is struggling to deal with its own displaced people.
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UPDATED 3:37 PM - 2 Apr 2014

As Australia grapples with resettling asylum seekers in the Pacific, the region is struggling to deal with its own displaced people.

Islands are becoming uninhabitable as the sea level slowly rises, forcing people to relocate.

Thousands will be affected in the Solomons Islands alone and the government has no firm plans yet for what to do with them.

A tranquil lagoon in Malaita, Lunga Lunga is sprinkled with islands but they are not the typical tropical variety.

These precarious mounds of coral, with pole houses perched on the water's edge, are artificial islands.

Across Malaita province, tens of thousands of people live like this.

"This island was built to stay, our forefathers from the bush, come down and stay the island so they build the island here to stay in the island," says Victor Wale from Auki island, just a short boat ride off-shore from Malaita's capital.

Nobody really knows why thousands of people live on these fragile artificial islands.

Some theories suggest the people were refugees, who built these islands with coral from the reef to escape mainland ethnic fighting or headhunting raids.

They are estimated to be at least 500-years-old.

Today the inhabitants are still building up the islands but their battle now is against the sea.

"Those islands are greatly affected because salt water comes right up in the middle of the island, so it affects the root crops," says Alick Maeaba, Deputy Premier of Malaita provincial government.

"That's one of the major problems they've encountered. So it will continue to grow worse in the near future."

 

Listen: SBS's Stefan Armbruster reports

Australia's Pacific Climate Change Science Program estimates the sea is rising in the Solomons by about eight millimetres a year.

That is almost three times the global average.

Locals say sea temperature rises have driven away the fish, their main source of protein.

Solomon Islands Red Cross disaster risk reduction manager Cameron Vudi has travelled to many remote islands across the Solomons.

"(There is) a big impact on low lying islands, especially (with) the salinisation of their water sources. I've seen this in the small islands I've been to," Cameron Vudi says.

"The wells are getting salty. And especially the dry season when there's no rain, people have no choice but to drink the salt water or the coconuts only."

Victor Wale says people are leaving the island.

"Everything like food gardens and catching water, that's at mainland, so they decide to move to the mainland…Here in the island, we paddle every day," he says.

The remaining islanders wonder where they can go.

"The land issue is so controversial and complicated because the lands are customary lands, owned by local people," says deputy premier Alick Maeaba.

"Land is their birthright. In culture, our land is our mother, so people really treasure it much."

Land disputes sparked a brutal five-year ethnic conflict in the Solomons that ended in 2003.

The national government is still working on the resettlement issue.

"Obviously there is going to be a very, very open discussion, with the communities," says Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo.

"Then it will have to have rethinking, some creative ideas in engagement with all the parties concerned, to be able to agree to a situation of better and amicable co-existence of the people that are facing the effects of climate change and those that are willing to offer their land."

The World Bank in recent Development Reports suggests resettling people in urban centres, where they are close to public services, provided there is more infrastructure spending.

In the Solomons, the main urban centre is the capital Honiara, a hectic little city surrounded by squatter camps.

It was here that the ethnic tensions over land started in 1998.

Malaita deputy premier Alick Maeaba says he does not think the idea will work.

"Generally speaking, if they can resettle to the main towns and the main cities, I don't think so," he says.

"From the experience out of the ethnic tensions, because town boundaries are very limited and anything beyond town boundary is the provincial government-owned land, and other provinces could not allow such a thing to happen."

The Red Cross's Cameron Vudi says another solution has to be found.

"There's a lot of issues that need to be resolved in the urban centres now rather than adding extra pressure to the existing ones we have already," Mr Vudi says.

Organisations like the local Red Cross, funded largely with Australian aid money, are preparing for the long haul.

"Adaptaton is the way to go now, that's because for relocation, it's still a long process before we achieve proper relocation for coastal communities," says Mr Vudi.

"For the smaller island communities, I think if we get them to adapt now, give or take we still have a few decades. But the way the sea's been rising, the sea level rise, or the coastal erosion's been happening, I don't think we have much time."

But time has already run out for some islands.

In the Solomons, and elsewhere in the Pacific, it could leave thousands of people displaced, looking for a new home.