Water and Environment: Relocation only option for Solomon Islands Provincial Capital

Philip Haines, BMT WBM, discusses the partnership to develop a climate change adaptation plan in the Solomon Islands.

II_Phil HainesIn response to the overshadowing risk of tsunami events and the emerging challenges associated with sea level rise, a community on the small coral atoll of Taro Island, in the Solomon Islands, is choosing to relocate their homes and lives to higher ground on the adjacent mainland.  While relocation of villages under threat from natural hazards is not new in the Pacific, this is the first time that a provincial capital will attempt to relocate because of climate change and other coastal risks. 

Dr Philip Haines (BMT WBM) and Ms Shannon McGuire (Buckley Vann) describe how Australian-based environmental consultancy BMT WBM (BMT) has partnered with Buckley Vann town planners and the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Queensland, to work in collaboration with the Australian Government’s Pacific-Australia Climate Change Science and Adaptation Planning (PACCSAP) programme. The team has developed an Integrated Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Taro Island and the surrounding area of Choiseul Bay including a detailed program of works for relocation of the Taro Island community to the adjacent mainland, along with a masterplan for the new town and a comprehensive planning scheme to regulate future development.

The adaptation plan has utilised the outcomes of extensive consultation that was carried out with local communities, relevant stakeholders and government authorities, at both provincial and national level.  There is near unanimous support for the relocation plan by the Taro Island community and authorities.  Recent evacuations of the island in response to local tsunami warnings have helped to heighten awareness on the vulnerability of the existing town. 

As the relocation process will require major infrastructure investment, authorities will look to the support of international donors in order to safely transition the Taro Island community to higher ground.  Recognising that relocation of the community will take 20 years or more, the climate change adaptation plan developed by BMT also outlines a range of ‘stop gap’ measures to help reduce damage and loss of life if major events occur in the interim.  This includes preparation of a tsunami emergency response plan and structural reinforcement of some critical assets.

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Location

Choiseul Bay is at the northern end of Choiseul Island (known locally as Lauru), within the Choiseul Province, Solomon Islands.  It is approximately 500 km north-west of the National Capital, Honiara, and only 50 km from neighbouring Bougainville Island (Papua New Guinea).  Taro Island, located within Choiseul Bay, is the provincial capital, with a land area of 0.4km2.  It has a resident population of approximately 900; however, it provides essential services (e.g. transport access, supplies, referral hospital, education, government administration) for the broader province with a population of approximately 26,000. 

Continued growth of Taro Island is no longer possible as all available land on the island is allocated and built upon.  Development has extended to neighbouring Supizae Island, however this is equally low-lying and vulnerable to coastal hazards. 

Land on the adjacent mainland (known as Lot 9 and Lot 277) was acquired in 2011 from customary landowners by the Solomon Islands Government, on behalf of the Choiseul Provincial Government (CPG).  This land, with a combined area of 4.7km2, will be the site of the proposed relocation for the provincial capital.

Community Perspectives

Preparation of the climate change adaptation plan incorporated extensive and meaningful consultation with local communities of Choiseul Bay, as well as stakeholders, interest groups and relevant authorities, including both national and provincial governments.  The consultation team consisted of environmental scientists, town planners and engineers, reflecting the multi-faceted nature of the plan.  The team comprised both males and females, and were very experienced in indigenous engagement.  Some members of the team could understand and speak Pidgin, which was important in engendering trust and rapport with the community.

The engagement found that the community were very supportive of the relocation to the mainland.  The community understood the risks associated with tsunami, and could see the impacts that future sea level rise will have on their way of life.  Community input was also sought on the design and layout of the new township.  More than 300 people participated in the engagement activities.  The Premier of Choiseul Province, the Honourable Jackson Kiloe, praised the consultation undertaken for the project.

“The way the project was carried out, the extensive and responsive community engagement and the training of national and provincial government officers as part of the project handover, has increased our resilience and engendered support for future adaptation actions. The project followed the ways of our traditions, - talking with people, listening to people and reflecting the desires of the people.” Jackson Kiloe, Premier, Choiseul Province, Solomon Islands

Hazards and Risks

Choiseul Bay communities are exposed to a range of natural coastal hazards, including tsunami, coastal storms and shoreline erosion.  Mean sea levels around the Solomon Islands are currently rising at a rate of 7 – 8 mm/yr, which is about 3 times the global average.  With further sea level rise, the risks associated with coastal hazards will intensify. 

Tsunami represents the biggest risk to the Choiseul Bay communities.  Seven tsunamis have been recorded in the area since 1950, the biggest occurred in April 2007, which devastated many coastal villages in Western and Choiseul Provinces.  Computer modelling shows that all infrastructure, housing and services on Taro Island and other low-lying areas around Choiseul Bay are at risk of tsunamis. For present day conditions, a 1 in 100 year tsunami (causing a 3 metre wave surge) would inundate about 95% of the island, leaving just 2 hectares of flood free land for emergency refuge.  By 2090, however, virtually no land would be available for refuge.  The only viable option for the long-term safety of the community is relocation of the entire population to a safer site on the mainland. 

The Plan to Relocate

Planning for the relocation of the capital from Taro Island to the mainland presented some interesting challenges including consideration of what this means culturally and socially to a community so closely linked to the sea.  Also a challenge was designing a new provincial capital that is ‘split’ across two non-contiguous areas, with implications for a range of services and infrastructure, such as power and water. 

Relocation of the Choiseul provincial capital to the mainland has been on the agenda for a number of years, although the driver for this relocation has mostly been the lack of available land on Taro Island for future growth.  The technical assessment undertaken as part of the climate change adaptation plan highlighted the vulnerability of Taro Island to coastal hazards and climate change, and provides justification for relocation of the capital to the mainland.

The adaptation plan provides a masterplan for the new provincial capital as a means of guiding appropriate future development, land use and town layout.  Computer modelling and hazard mapping was used to inform the layout of the new town, with development set back from coastal areas to avoid future impacts of tsunami and sea level rise.  The community and stakeholders were also involved in the process of masterplan development.  This included creating a ‘vision’ for the new town.  Overall, the community desires a modern ‘green and clean’ town that is safe from natural hazards and is well connected to the rest of the province by land and sea.  This vision is an important ‘touch stone’ for the adaptation plan as it articulates the future township that the provincial government and community aspired to.  Importantly, improving resilience to climate change is enshrined across all levels of the local planning scheme, from the community’s vision to the strategic plan, and to more detailed land use zoning maps and development controls.

Ground survey and an environmental assessment of the new township development are required initially to progress the relocation.  Then, subject to available funding, it is expected most provincial services on Taro Island will start relocating to the mainland before 2030. 

Interim Measures

As the relocation process will take years to decades to be completed, other measures are needed on Taro Island to improve resilience and provide interim protection from coastal hazards, such as tsunami.  The climate change adaptation plan prepared by BMT outlines a range of measures that can be carried out now, which will help the community adapt to existing risks as well as future climate change.  This includes preparing a tsunami emergency response plan, raising and reinforcing critical assets, and replanting shorelines.

Provisions are also included in the draft local planning scheme that has been prepared for the adaptation plan by Buckley Vann town planners to ensure that any on-going development on Taro and Supizae Islands are appropriately designed and located to minimise damage by tsunamis. This essentially means any new development must be ‘higher and stronger’. 

What happens next?

The comprehensive Choiseul Bay Integrated Climate Change Adaptation Plan maps a route for the local authorities to improve community resilience in the short and long term.  The Plan effectively integrates indigenous knowledge with scientific, planning and engineering data to derive a solution that will ultimately benefit the local community, the broader province, and the whole Solomon Islands nation.

 

On-going assistance by international funding partners is now essential to maintain the momentum and interest in the relocation project.  The significance of this pilot project on the international stage cannot be understated as relocation may emerge as the only viable option for many other coastal communities throughout the Pacific Island nations, and elsewhere across the world, that are facing the impacts of future climate change and sea level rise in particular.

The importance of the climate change adaptation plan to the local communities and authorities is summarised by the words of the Choiseul Provincial Government Chief Planner, Mr Geoffrey Pakipota, to the project team:

“Your input into the project has been acknowledged as a precious and valuable piece of work (gift) by the government and people of Choiseul Province. Personally, much was gained and experienced from all of you. Hope to meet all of you anytime soon.  This project has been termed by the National Government of Solomon Islands as a forerunner to development and establishment of growth centres throughout the country.  This project is truly unique in the country and in the Pacific, or even in the world. It is a blend of scientific, technical skill/expertise plus local indigenous knowledge”. Geoffrey Pakipota, Chief Planner, Choiseul Provincial Government

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Contact Information

Philip Haines

Brisbane Office
Level 8, 200 Creek Street
Brisbane
Queensland
4000
Australia

Tel: +61 (0) 7 3831 6744
Email: bmtwbm@bmtwbm.com.au