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Australia: Water crisis, rising sea levels and coastal inundations affecting Zenadth Kes Islanders

20 June 2023

To envision the impact of sea-level rise is also to picture an inheritance denied.

Sea-level rise is causing habitats to shrink, diminishing biodiversity

The colourful five-pointed star on the recently designed Torres Strait Island flag conveys a poignant message: Zenadth Kes is a tropical paradise made up of 274 islands (five groups), five cultures and five languages at least, as well as a long-standing sense of community and reverence for ancestors. Traditional inhabitants of the land bridge between North Queensland and Papua New Guinea, Zenadth Kes or Torres Strait Islanders are deeply connected with the land and sea country they have inhabited for many tens of thousands of years.

Biodiversity in this archipelago nation has long been astounding. Forty years ago, anthropologists eulogized: ‘This is one of the most ecologically complex areas in the world containing volcanic, continental, coral and alluvial islands, platform and barrier reefs. The strait offers a multitude of habitats and niches for the Indo-Pacific marine fauna, which itself has the greatest diversity of the ocean world.’

An aerial view shows the community on Boigu Island, in the Torres Strait, Australia. Credit: Aaron Bunch/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.

Maintaining such ecologically complex and environmentally sensitive habitats is critically important for the welfare of the reliant Islander populations. Even though Torres Strait Islanders are ‘one of the most marine-oriented and sea-life dependent indigenous societies on the planet’, marine specialization among Saltwater People is possible only with honed technology and intimate knowledge of the sea accumulated over thousands of years. Any adaptation responses to current and foreseeable threats to the islands and oceans of Zenadth Kes people, especially climate change and rising sea levels, must be firmly based on cultural identity and sovereignty, not just piecemeal political solutions coming from decision-makers in the national capital Canberra.

‘We are concerned about where we are going to be relocated in the future. We are not talking about 100 years, but 30 to 50 years. We have our ancestors here. They are tying us to our land. We don’t want to leave our loved ones behind.’

Access to clean water is threatened by sea-level rise

Local sea-level rise in the Torres Strait Islands is two to three times the global average. Latest estimates suggest that levels will rise by one metre or more by the end of the century. Many of the low-lying islands need only another 20–30 centimetres of sea-level rise to lose significant amounts of land and resources. Existential threats to indigenous communities are so serious that potential migration to other islands, or even Australia, has become a real topic of debate among them. Other islands with different geophysical landscapes will be mostly inundated if the sea-level rise is more than 200 centimetres. The prospects of having to leave home, lose spiritual links and neglect responsibilities to ancestors, are traumatic.  

‘Climate change is like a poison brought to our shores,’ argues Yessie Mosby, a Torres elder and activist. This poison is deeply tied to water rights and water crisis in the islands. Water problems include scarcity of freshwater, saltwater intrusion, limited infrastructure and sometimes unsustainable use of water resources. ‘We live in fear wherever we go,’ Mosby argues. ‘We are concerned about where we are going to be relocated in the future. We are not talking about 100 years, but 30 to 50 years. We have our ancestors here. They are tying us to our land. We don’t want to leave our loved ones behind.’

Many climate researchers recognize Islander leadership as making a major contribution to an understanding of climate solutions worldwide.

Increasing ocean acidity and sea temperature, and ocean-carried sediments, microplastics and mining refuse from nearby big rivers in Papua New Guinea are affecting local fisheries, especially the traditional staple of dugongs, a marine mammal which inhabits seagrass meadows. Relying on the sea for food and livelihoods in the future is dangerous, even foolhardy. 

Extreme tidal storm surges and rising seas bring salt into the freshwater springs that have existed for millennia on these low-lying islands. Extra remediation would require removing the salt as the contaminated water is pumped, diverting more rainwater into storage, installing desalination plants or relying on imported and even bottled water. The question is: who is prepared to cover the compensation costs of climate change in this community? 

According to Uncle Paul Kabai, a Torres Strait Island activist, ‘there are 17 inhabited islands in the Torres Strait and 7 of these are inundated with water due to rising sea levels. My island of Saibai is one of these,’ he adds. ‘Because of damage to the climate, we are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain clean fresh drinking water, materials for shelter, and liveable land.’ 

Health researchers have found that the inundation of Zenadth Kes Islands is conducive to a number of subsidiary problems, especially sanitation. Five climate-sensitive infectious diseases are particularly prevalent in the islands: tuberculosis, dengue, Ross River virus and two types of bacterial infection. To prevent health issues in the future, it is vital that a united response from Islanders on health and homelands is achieved.

Combating sea-level rise in Zenadth Res is setting a worldwide legal precedent

Torres Strait Islanders have a long tradition of political campaigning, going back to the 1998 Mabo case for land rights, a significant milestone in Australian legal history. It led to the recognition of land rights for the Meriam people, traditional inhabitants of the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait. Legal and political campaigning has continued over the ensuing decades, leading up to recent proceedings against the Australian government by two separate Islander groups. 

In 2019, a group of eight Torres Strait Islanders submitted a complaint to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). They were acting on their own behalf as well as on behalf of six of their children. In September 2022, the OHCHR published its decision in the complainants’ favour. The UN body found that the Australian government had violated two important principles in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, namely: the Islanders’ right to a home, private life and family; and their right to enjoy their culture. The OHCHR emphasized that the complainants’ right to culture, as indigenous people, is closely linked to Torres Strait Islanders’ territory and natural resources. The OHCHR decided that the state had not implemented adaptation measures in a timely manner, hampering the Islanders’ ability to maintain their way of life and transmit it to their children. It also decided that the Australian government must provide an effective remedy, including adequate compensation as well as implementation of the adaptation measures needed to secure the Islanders’ rights.

The decision sets worldwide precedents for the principles regarding state obligations – including compensation – to communities affected by climate damage. It also has significant implications for international law because it reinforces the link between climate change and human rights, emphasizing the responsibility of governments to address climate change, and paves the way for future international legal action. Although the decision is not legally binding on other governments, such as the island-states of the South Pacific that are also affected by sea-level rise, it could influence policy development, legal proceedings and international cooperation on climate change and human rights.

The other recent Torres Strait Islander case tackles Australian domestic policies. Uncle Pabai Pabai and Uncle Paul Kabai from Boigu and Saibai Islands filed their case with the Federal Court of Australia in October 2021, arguing that the federal government has a legal duty of care to Torres Strait Islanders to ensure that they are not harmed by climate change. They are seeking a court order to instruct the government to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The first evidence of the Pabai Pabai and Guy Paul Kabai v. Commonwealth of Australia case was submitted in February 2023.

Following the OHCHR decision, the creation of a state-funded Torres Strait Climate Centre of Excellence was announced by the local authorities. The Centre of Excellence will be a First Nations-led effort guided by traditional knowledge, providing another precedent for the fight against climate change in Zenadth Kes and beyond. According to US scholars Scott Fitzpatrick and Christina Giovas, ‘resilience to various extremes needs an approach from ridge to reef, to look after freshwater supplies and minimise the impacts of floods and storm-induced inundation.’ As the region becomes the focus of more cultural, scientific and health studies, many climate researchers recognize Islander leadership as making a major contribution to an understanding of climate solutions worldwide. These developments show that Torres Strait Islander Peoples must guide their region into the future, as the region becomes a leading centre of indigenous climate adaptation, supporting a positive narrative and approach in response to climate change and water crisis.

We are grateful to members of Torres Strait 8 for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: Uncle Pabai Pabai from the Island of Boigu and Uncle Paul Kabai from Saibai Island are suing the Australian Government for inaction on climate change. Credit: Justin McManus.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


Peter Best