On the south coast, rising seas inescapable

The south coast of Upolu is slowly being claimed by the sea. Beach fale properties are watching their businesses slowly vanish day by day. 

The impact of climate change is felt all over Samoa, but perhaps most acutely on the beach, where shores are shrinking, and waves are growing stronger every year.

On Namua Island in Aleipata, owner Tuava Levasa Ieti has already shifted his beach fales back several metres to save them from the rising tides. He is at a loss for what to do next. 

After all his fales were wiped out by the 2009 tsunami, he said he noticed a significant change in the tides, which began to come in significantly further than they used to.

A line of coconut trees on the island’s edge are now home to sea life and stand some two whole metres into the sea at low tide. 

“Before the tsunami we had a beautiful front here,” Tuava said, gesturing at the white sand beach. 

“Those fales were [closer to the sea], but we had to move them up.”

 Not far from Tuava, in Lalomanu, Taufua Beach Fales owners Faafetai Taufua and Taufua Sili Apelu have already invested hundreds of thousands of tala in retreating inland.

They now have a large development of villa-style accommodation on the other side of the road from the beach, wedged into the mountainside and, they hope, safe from the encroaching tides. 

Eventually, they believe they will need to dismantle the row of fales closest to the sea and likely move their restaurant too. But those are two large expenses that simply won’t be possible because of the grinding halt of the international tourism industry they depend on. 

Moving away from the beach fale operation to a closed villa development is not exactly what the pair want for their business.

“This is our treasure,” says Mrs Taufua, whose father first developed the site.

“We wanted overseas people to know how we lived back in those days and the fale is one of our treasures.”

These days, the tides come up under the first row of beach fales at least once a month, Taufua said, something that never happened before.

According to research by Australian and Samoan scientists, Samoa’s sea level is rising more rapidly than the global average of 2.8 to 3.6 millimetres a year. Instead,  annual increases of four millimetres have been recorded since 1993.

Ocean acidification is also increasing, damaging the reef systems that protect the shores from waves, storms and flooding. 

Under any future projections of emissions reduction, the sea level is predicted to rise by at least between 7 to 17 centimetres by 2030. But under the worst projected greenhouse gas emissions, these rises could be as bad as by 40 to 87 centimetres by the end of the century.

Under a ‘very low emissions scenario’ sea-level rises could stop at between 23 and 59 centimetres by 2090.

The Pacific Climate Change Science and Adaptation Planning Programme used 24 out of 26 climate prediction models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) to devise the predictions for Samoa in 2015.

These four millimetres have already made themselves known in Tafatafa where the owners of Maota o Maa beach fales have invested around $10,000 in building a makeshift seawall to protect their beach from the sea. But the structure has itself been beaten down by the tides.

Alaimoana Esau Roberts and Lise Alaimoana have tried several options to stem the rising tides to no avail. On one part of the beach, concrete blocks hold up mesh boxes full of rocks; in another massive sandbags stand in place.

An unusual feature of Alaimoana's beach is a bar made of beach rock formation, a little way into the sea. At low tide it sticks out and includes a gaping hole that the couple dug out, thinking removing the bar would make the bar better

As soon as they cut out the small piece, however, the sea rushed forward and damaged the shore. Alaimoana said they stopped work and gave up on the idea of removing it.

Meanwhile, the two wait for help from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. They submitted an application for assistance earlier this year and are awaiting a response, Mrs. Alaimoana said.

“We heard there is lots of money from overseas to help with tourism.”

The I.P.C.C.’s latest research on oceans, published in 2019 (the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere) reveals sea level rises are being driven by rapidly melting ice in Greenland at the Antarctic. 

Between 2007 and 2016, the Antarctic ice sheet lost three times as much ice as between 1997 and 2006. In Greenland the loss was double.

Global sea-level rises will in turn increase extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones and storm surges, which in turn will devastate the coastal regions.

And with less in place to protect them, such as reefs and coastal wetlands, the coasts are essentially defenceless.

According to the I.P.C.C, half of all coastal wetlands such as marshes, swamps and mangrove forests have been lost in the last 100 years. Losing this many wetlands accounts for the release of up to 1.5 gigatonnes of carbon every year.

Meanwhile, the owners of neither Namua, Taufua nor Maota o Maa have heard back from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment or the Samoa Tourism Authority (S.T.A.) about possible solutions for their erosion problems. 

Tuava said so far, all he has done is “talk, talk, talk” but does not actually know what to do about his small island getting smaller. 

The S.T.A. has a Tourism Climate Change Unit, and in 2018-19 worked with the United Nations’ Development Programme to review five sites that were funded to improve their site, including Taufua Beach Fales. 

It has also been working with the South Pacific Tourism Organisation on a Sustainability Programme to help hotels manage their energy and water consumption and waste generation.

The Samoa Tourism Authority has not responded to a request for comment.

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