• Torres strait Islanders carry supplies as a high tide washing over a sea-wall and into the community. (The Point (Screenshot))Source: The Point (Screenshot)
Low-lying islands in the Torres Strait are currently losing twice the amount of land to rising sea-levels than the global average and face relocations in the near-future if action is not taken to lower emissions.
Douglas Smith

The Point
4 Sep 2020 - 11:41 PM  UPDATED 8 Sep 2020 - 4:51 PM

As rising sea-levels erode low-lying islands in the Torres Strait, a group of Traditional Owners are embattled in a disagreement with the Australian government on whether climate change is violating their human rights. 

Just over a year ago, eight Torres Strait Islanders lodged a formal complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee, claiming the Australian government was violating their human rights due to its lack of action on reducing emissions and implementing adaptation measures on their islands. 

The group of claimants say they are facing the frightening reality of losing their land, culture and way of life if they are forced to leave their island homes due to rising sea-levels. 

Earlier this month, the government responded and formally asked the UN to dismiss the group's claim, dismissing the issue as a problem for the future, rather than the present.  

Speaking to The Point last week, lead complainant, Kulkalgal man from Masig Island, Yessie Mosby, said the situation was getting worse by the day, as metres of his island was continuously washed away by the ocean.

“Usually we see a metre [of land] get taken away per year, but in April, we seen three metres get taken away in hours," said Mr Mosby. 

“We’re experiencing longer droughts, shorter rain or when we do have our rain, it comes with such a bang it practically drowns out our crops. 

“The weather up here is unpredictable, it’s not like before."

In a statement provided to The Point last week, a spokesperson from the Attorney-General's department confirmed the government had responded to the complaint made by Torres Strait Islanders but said it would be "inappropriate" to comment further on the matter, which included the "substance" of the government's response. 

However, the spokesperson said the government was confident that its actions on climate change were adequate in meeting the human rights obligations of Torres Strait Islander people.  

"The Government is confident its policies regarding climate change are consistent with its international human rights obligations," said the spokesperson. 

However, a report released by the Climate Council in 2014 called, Counting the Costs: Climate Change and Coastal Flooding, found the rate of sea-rising levels in the Torres Strait Islands were accelerating at twice the rate of the global average. 

'The Australian government is not doing its bit'

Speaking to The Point on Wednesday, climate scientist and co-author of the report, Professor Lesley Hughes, said not much had changed since 2014 and that the government had "delayed" too much time already which was making the issue worse. 

“Globally, sea levels are rising at about three millimetres a year or a little bit above, whereas, in the Torres Strait, they seem to be rising at about six and eight millimetres a year, so that's a very high level of sea-level rise," said Professor Hughes. 

"It's absolutely a problem for now, the longer we delay in either doing adaptation to protect those communities like sea-walls and other barricades, and certainly the longer we delay in tackling the root cause for the climate change problem, the worse the problem is going to be."

Professor Hughes criticised the Australian government, saying it was doing a "very poor job" in committing to international climate change action. 

"There was a recently published report from the UN on sustainable development and it rated Australia as number 176 out of 177 for climate action and climate policy, so we're the second bottom on that list, only just beating Brunei, which is an oil and gas-rich nation. 

“I’ve often reflected that we talk a lot about environmental refugees from climate change with people in those situations having to move, and Australia is probably going to be faced with the problem that the first environmental refugees from climate change will actually be our own Torres Strait Islander citizens.”

Human remains revealed

In a video sent to The Point on Wednesday, Mr Mosby showed the skeletal remains of his great-great-grandmother, which were revealed due to the inundation caused by rising sea levels, and said it was a problem for all the families on his island.  

"Some of our loved ones now have been taken by the sea," said Mr Mosby. 

"We’ve had to move some of our other relatives who used to be in the bush, now at the waterfront where we had to relocate them due to inundation that brought them out and revealed their remains...we had to remove them."

Mr Mosby said the remains of loved-ones have to continually be relocated inland every time the ocean eats away at the land, but are unable to bury them due to cultural reasons.  

Mr Mosby said he was worried for the future generations of his and other islands in the Torres Strait. 

“We don't want to wait for 30-years down the track when we will be just standing under one tree left, 300 people standing under a tree left, screaming out for the Australian government for help. We need help now… now is the time," said Mr Mosby. 

"Like the saying goes, ‘knock it while it's early’, protect while it's early, while you can protect it...look after it, save it, if you can, because when it becomes too late, it will be so late that you can not look after it... you cannot protect it.”

The Torres Strait Islanders taking 'world-first climate change case' to UN
The case frames climate change as “a human rights issue”, with First Nations people among the most vulnerable to a changing climate.