Throughout this report, the committee has referred to current and
potential adverse effects of changes in climate on the ecosystems in the Torres
Strait. The committee discussed the possible detrimental effects on the life cycle
of protected or vulnerable species and the likelihood of increased risks of
noxious weeds, pests and diseases spreading into the region. It also considered
the implications for national security, should food or water shortages create
tensions between people or communities who are forced to re-settle because
their local environment can no longer sustain them. The effects of changes in
climate in the Torres Strait therefore are not confined to a specific island, animal
or plant species, or community. Moreover, the knock-on effects for
conservation, biosecurity and national security are little understood.
In this chapter, the committee consolidates its consideration of the
effects of climate changes in the Torres Strait, starting with the more immediate
concern of events already occurring due to sea water inundations and coastal
erosion. It then pieces together all the numerous aspects of climate change
covered in the report to reach a more comprehensive understanding of the
significance of these changes and the steps being taken to address the possible
short and long-term implications for the region.
At present, coastal erosion and inundation are affecting settlements, wildlife
habitats, land use, beaches, harbour and coastal works, business, ecosystems
and important cultural sites in the Torres Strait Islands. The worst affected
communities include Boigu and Saibai, the two most northern islands just across
from the PNG border. The central coral cay islands of Warraber, Masig, Poruma
and Iama are also subject to significant erosion and inundation.
Local people informed the committee during its visit to Saibai and Boigu
about recent sea water inundations and the subsequent major flooding. Ms Morris
advised the committee that the highest astronomical tides that occurred in
January 2009 and 2010 were related to cyclonic or low activities in the gulf. She
...the high tides always come with those monsoonal activities,
be it a cyclone or just a large low. We know that the sea level was 52
centimetres higher than the predicted highest astronomical tide level and we
suspect that this year, when all the data is completed, we will be looking at
similar spike periods. So it is not the four centimetre sea level rise that you
hear people talk about; it is these spikes that come through that have the
bigger impacts. That changes a whole lot of systems, including the ecological
systems and some of the breeding systems of some of the species.
As noted in earlier chapters, rising sea levels and more extreme weather
events have the potential to affect every aspect of life in the Torres Strait—
eco-systems and the wildlife they support; food and water supplies; the health
and well-being of local people; land use; and patterns of human settlement. During
the committee's visit to Boigu, Councillor Donald Banu spoke of the changes
taking place on his island. For example, he noted that the birds that used to
be in the swamps now walk the streets. He recalled a time when their fathers
knew when to plant crops but changes in climate were now outside their
understanding of normal fluctuations. The committee also saw evidence of coastal
erosion on Saibai and Boigu and heard first-hand accounts of the severe effects
of the January 2009 and 2010 inundations. It was told that Saibai once had a
beach but this foreshore was now lost.
Shoreline erosion on low lying islands in the Torres
(Photos courtesy of the Torres Strait Regional
The damage caused on Saibai by recent sea water
inundations and major flooding
Whether the sea water inundation is caused by climate change or unusual
weather events, Ms Morris argued that it is occurring and causing problems on Masig,
Yam, Saibai and Boigu and nearly all the low-lying islands in the Torres Strait.
Scientists are seeing fundamental change, such as sand accretion, in these
islands, and the mud islands of Saibai and Boigu, in particular, are 'in a lot
Because the land and seascape is central to the cultural and social life
of Torres Strait Islanders, changes in climate may also affect profoundly the
cultural heritage of the people. A 2008 Native Title Report found that the
threats to culture from climate change were 'already being felt' and gave the
examples of king tides damaging graveyard sites and the disruption to nesting
behaviour of turtles. It surmised that if predictions were accurate, some
islands may 'disappear completely' and others 'lose large tracts of land', with
the possibility of Islanders being disposed of their lands and forced to
relocate. It quoted an Islander from Saibai who said 'But we will lose our
identity as Saibai people if we scatter. If we separate, there will be no more
During its visit to Saibai and Boigu, the committee heard similar views about
the importance of preserving the island culture and the strong resistance to
any suggestion regarding relocation.
Islanders are looking at practical measures to deal with the immediate
problems of sea inundation. For example, the people of Masig have stated
clearly their wish 'to continue live on Masig into the future'. They are
prepared to participate in a process of adaptation to environmental change by, among
other things, gradually moving the focus of the island village towards higher
parts of the island' and building new houses and infrastructure away from hazardous
locations unless absolutely essential.
To manage the uncertainty about climate change and its effects on island
environments, in 2006 the TSRA established the Torres Strait Coastal Management
Committee (TSCMC). Its initial brief was concerned with coastal erosion issues;
but has broadened its scope to include tidal and storm surge inundation and
projected climate change impacts on island communities. The TSCMC includes
representatives from communities currently most affected by coastal erosion and
tidal inundation—Saibai, Boigu, Poruma, Masig, Iama and Warraber. It also
includes representatives from local, state and Australian governments and from
TSRA stated that on its behalf, the TSCMC in 2008 'facilitated research
on coastal erosion', completed by the Queensland Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA, now Department of Environment and Resource Management) and James
Cook University (JCU). According to TSRA, this research highlighted the need
for 'a suite of immediate works to mitigate coastal erosion and inundation
hazards' and also identified critical knowledge gaps. In the view of TSRA, more
detailed work is presently underway 'to assess and map inundation hazards to
each community, involving updating of island datum's, high resolution terrain
mapping and probabilistic hydrodynamic modelling'.
According to Ms Morris, the researchers from JCU:
...were looking at what was happening: how frequently the
inundations were occurring, what was happening to the sand, where it was going
and why it was going there...They then looked specifically at eight islands that
were in what they called the highest risk category...They looked not only at what
was happening with sea level rise, erosion and accretion but also at potential
mitigation components and opportunities for mitigation.
In her view, scientists can provide very good advice on where and how things
should be built and why some of the abatement processes are failing—the tyre
walls, the rock walls and those sorts of things. She explained that they 'are
working with the islands to give them information on the engineering and basic
knowledge and predictive capacity around that'.
Ms Morris continued:
There are many things that you can do. You can relook at your
desalination plant. You can look at your sewerage plants. You can structure
them differently. You can structure the housing differently. You can maintain
some of the infrastructure.
Ms Morris also referred to work being done on the way the communities respond
to the changes and how fear is managed in the communities—'how they articulate
that fear in relation to their heritage, what that means and how they think they
are going to go'.
The damage caused by sea water inundation in the Torres Strait has also been
the subject of recent government studies. For example, the Australian
Government through the Department of Climate Change released a number of
studies on climate change that registered concerns already raised by Torres
Strait Islanders. One report on the climate change risks to Australia's coast
Many communities are subject to significant coastal hazard
issues with erosion and inundation directly threatening housing, infrastructure
including roads, water supply systems, power stations, community facilities,
cultural sites including cemeteries, traditional gardens and ecosystems.
The report noted that continuing inundation events for communities on
the low-lying islands in the Torres Strait would 'require the development of
short-term coastal protection and may require long-term relocation plans for
approximately 2000 Torres Strait islander peoples'.
A scoping study, released in May 2010, noted that the 'majority of Saibai
inhabitants wish to see the construction of a sea wall to protect the village'.
It noted that this undertaking would be expensive and that, to date, funding
had not been forthcoming, other than for basic repairs to the existing wall.
Practical steps to address
Regarding the lack of action in the construction of the sea wall, the
TSRA informed the committee that it had submitted a proposal for funding the
2008 research recommendations to the Australian Government. The proposal was to
implement coastal protection works for Saibai and Boigu, Iama and Poruma, Masig
and Warraber and included seawall construction, bund building, sand re-location
and elevation of essential infrastructure. According to the TSRA, the measures were
intended 'to complement the house raising activities being implemented in some
The joint strategy of immediate works and comprehensive community
based adaption planning is designed to alleviate current inundation and erosion
issues whilst at the same [time] buying sufficient time to develop longer term adaption
plans addressing sea level rise together with other potential climate change
issues (including health, ecosystem, food, water border security etc). It is
envisaged that the process of developing these plans will involve detailed
consideration of adaptation options (such as seawalls, house raising, levees,
filling, relocation, emergency planning) including social, cultural, economic,
and environmental assessment over various time horizons.
The TSRA estimated that the implementation of the proposed coastal works
and the assessment of island adaptation needs would cost $22 million. A
comprehensive climate change adaptation strategy was being prepared by the LSMU
at the TSRA.
The committee sought information from representatives of the Queensland
Government on its response to the problems caused by water inundation. Mr David
Robinson informed the committee that while his Department of Environment and
Resource Management provided advice and assistance to all councils in Queensland
and the TSRA, the protection of property and related issues was primarily a
matter for the local authorities. He said the department was working closely
with TSRA which was undertaking a storm tides study. At the time, the study had
not been completed but was expected 'to assist in the planning process'.
He stated that the department did not have 'a funding program for that'.
Mr Paul Toolis, Queensland Department of Infrastructure and Planning, explained:
...whilst it is fairly obvious there is an impact on climate
change in the Torres Strait, there is quite a need for work to establish what
that is, and that is the work that is going on at this time. The Department of Infrastructure
and Planning has infrastructure programs going in the Torres Strait. At the
moment, they are essentially targeted at environmental health
infrastructure—that is, sewerage schemes, water supplies and waste management
regimes. The Torres Strait Island Regional Council and the Torres Strait
Regional Authority have certainly written to the Queensland government and
advised them of this issue. At this stage, I understand that the process is to
get a full understanding of what that really means. To my knowledge, at this
stage there is no significant program to do remedial works.
When asked about the immediate problems caused by the high tides that
inundate these communities, Mr Toolis responded that he was unaware of any
state government program that addressed such issues. He understood that there
was an Australian government department assisting in this process and also that
the TSRA had had consultations with a Commonwealth government agency.
Dr John Higgins, Commonwealth Department of Climate Change, informed the
committee that he was aware of some concern on the Torres Strait Islands about
the impacts of climate change. He explained that his department's role was 'in
generating information that can be used to help make decisions about
infrastructure'. He indicated that the construction of a sea wall would be 'handled
within the portfolio for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous
Affairs, who are responsible for those infrastructure projects in the Torres Strait'.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government:
- place a high priority on implementing practical measures that
need to be taken in the short term to assist local communities in the Torres
Strait better deal with and, where possible, mitigate the problems caused by
higher sea levels and extreme weather events; and
- review the need for an education and training program designed
specifically to assist those communities in the region most at risk from the
damaging effects of changes in climate. The intention would be to determine how
best to assist people to remain productive members of their community in a
The TSRA's funding proposal also identified the need for a comprehensive
climate change adaption program for the region, which would cover the ecology,
economy, human health and social infrastructure of all the islands. The
proposal detailed 'an approach to investigate, monitor and plan for adaptation to
current coastal hazards as well as the potential effects of climate change'. It
was intended that this program would 'build on the work by the EPA and JCU,
incorporating strategies agreed to by the communities of Boigu, Saibai, Masig,
Poruma, Warraber and Iama, but also address coastal management and climate
change issues affecting other Torres Strait Island communities.
Research on climate change
In 2009, the TSRA listed a number of studies then being undertaken in
the Torres Strait, including:
- a rapid assessment shoreline erosion project, examining causes of
coastal erosion in the Torres Strait—undertaken by the EPA;
- a sustainable land use planning project, educating communities on
the impacts of development on the natural environment in the Torres Strait;
- a MTSRF project 'Climate change impacts in the Torres Strait:
Building resilience and planning adaptation strategies', which aimed to
integrate scientific and traditional knowledge for a regional workshop on
- a research project by JCU and University of Wollongong titled 'Understanding
sea-level change in Torres Strait', which was to survey, sample and date
material from reef flat corals to examine sea level changes over time.
The committee has also referred to the research that scientists with the
CSIRO were undertaking on climate change in the Torres Strait, notably its
effects on the life cycle and behaviour of mosquitoes.
Despite the number of research projects, considerable uncertainty still
surrounds the issue of climate change and its consequences. Dr Butler, CSIRO,
referred to the huge variations in the climate models and the enormous
difficulties involved in trying to bring global-scale modelling down to a local
scale. He informed the committee that the 'science of that is relatively young':
What we would say is that one way to tackle the uncertainty
is to apply technical scenario planning where you look at all of the possible
outcomes of future climate change plus the other things that go on anyway in
terms of population growth and global economic forces and political processes
and so on to try to tease out...what the future trajectories for the Torres
Strait might be.
Dr Sheppard informed the committee that the research around the
regionalisation of the climate, future climate mapping and modelling was about
According to him, CSIRO would model the potential range of direct and indirect
climate change impacts on the region's ecosystems, communities and economy. This
undertaking would allow predictions of possible future scenarios for the Torres
Strait's vulnerable communities and appropriate adaptation options. He could
not provide a definite time for the completion of the early phase of this work.
He noted that it 'really depends on how quickly we can have access to the
regional climate modelling data' but surmised that it would be a five- to
10-year time frame.
Dr Sheppard noted that the research undertaken by CSIRO in the three
separate areas of fisheries, biosecurity and climate change was located in
quite different parts of the organisation. Scientists recognised, however, that
the climate change components associated with each of them come together as
being relevant. According to Dr Sheppard, CSIRO is looking to link the various
areas of research that involves climate change. He stated further:
...research is most likely going to be coordinated through the CSIRO's
Climate Adaptation National Research Flagship...The only aspect of the research
that I highlighted that is not currently directly in the flagship is, I
believe, the fisheries research.
For example, he informed the committee that the research into
biosecurity associated with the risk from mosquitoes as vectors of human
diseases was part of a much larger area of activity in the climate adaptation
flagship. He explained:
The flagship funds these clusters that actually bring in
collaboration with universities. It is part of a collaboration between CSIRO,
the University of Queensland and the ANU around the general impacts of climate
change on human health.
Dr Butler also spoke of the direction being taken by CSIRO in its
research on climate change in the Torres Strait. He noted that a lot of the
work was very focused, for example on bêche-de-mer,
a species of bêche-de-mer
or a species of mosquito. He explained that the research that CSIRO was trying
to start in the Torres Strait was 'really about pulling all of those different
strands together'. The intention would be to piece together 'a broader picture
of what might happen and translate that or enunciate that in terms of human
livelihoods, wellbeing and health and the economy as a whole up there'.
According to Dr Butler the research would include assessments of
inundation, storm surges and the range of things that are thought likely to be
a consequence of climate change. He stressed the importance of recognising that
'those are the sorts of short-term, tactical..."in your face"...effects
of climate change'. He added:
But there are likely to be more indirect effects. For example,
simply the price of fuel is going to be a major driver of how the economy of
the region operates. That may be driven to some extent by climate change issues
as well. So I think we would like to broaden up the question to the indirect
issues as well as those very short-term direct problems that you have just
Importantly, he noted that much of what happens to the Torres Strait may
be influenced by what happens in PNG, particularly along the southern coast, 'whether
those are climate impacts and the knock-on effects of them or broader political
and economic issues'.
Pressed on the question of a time frame for the study, Dr Butler also explained
that 'ideally, in a perfect world, we would like to get it done within the next
three, four or five years depending on availability of resources'. He added,
however, that the long-term goal of turning that research 'into a sort of
broader futures analysis of the Torres Strait will require, probably, some more
According to Dr Butler, some of the funding was already allocated and some not.
He explained that funding for the MTSRF was coming up for renewal and 'if that
all comes to fruition then hopefully those funds will be available, but if it
does not then it is not quite so clear how this will go'.
The committee noted previously that the Australian Government has produced a
new funding proposal but that details on future research were not available
(see paragraphs 10.49–10.51).
In May 2010, the then Minister for Climate Change announced $400,000 for
new research into the impacts of climate on Torres Strait communities and possible
adaptation strategies. Dr Higgins explained:
The role of the Department of Climate Change and Energy
Efficiency lies in generating a better information base for decision making. That
information can then be taken into account in broader decisions about
infrastructure needs, for example, and integrated with decisions about other
things that infrastructure has to deal with.
The committee would hope that any future funding of research into
climate change in the Torres Strait would come under, and feed into, the work
being done by CSIRO's climate adaptation flagship.
Numerous reports or assessments have been published in recent times that
highlight the threat that changes in climate present for communities in the
Torres Strait. They are united in drawing on current events and trends to
conclude that the risks are serious and real although the extent is uncertain.
This body of work exposes the lack of data on which to base firm predictions
for the Torres Strait and underscores the need for more research. For example,
even the recent scoping study on the risks from climate change to Indigenous communities
in Northern Australia recommended an in-depth collaborative study.
While the committee recognises that more research is needed, it is
concerned that currently there is no concerted, well-coordinated research plan
that would focus predominantly on the Torres Strait. It notes that CSIRO has
commenced work on 'detailed modelling to downscale a range of regional climate
change projections and predict direct impacts and changes on marine ecosystems,
island infrastructure and communities' in the Torres Strait.
It notes further the reference made by CSIRO researchers to its 'climate adaptation
flagship'. The committee believes that this project, which intends to draw
together all facets of research that touch on climate change in the Torres
Strait, is well over due. It welcomes this initiative and fully supports
CSIRO's 'climate adaptation flagship' but notes the uncertainty surrounding its
The committee recommends that the Australian Government lend its full
support to CSIRO's 'climate adaptation flagship' and ensure that adequate
funding is made available to the institution to continue this initiative.
In conjunction and closely connected with this initiative, the committee
recommends that the Australian Government fund a study into socio-economic
developments in the region, including in the South Fly District, and their
implications for water and food security and populations movements in the area.
Consistent with recommendations in chapter 9, the committee would expect
that consultation with the local communities about the flagship and the close
involvement of local people in all aspects of associated research projects
would be required.
The committee again notes that the Torres Strait region is a shared
jurisdiction and, furthermore, that the effects of climate change on the PNG
side of the border cannot be treated as distinct and separate from developments
on the Australian side. The committee believes that the collaborative approach
being taken by CSIRO should also encompass research on the PNG side.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government assist PNG to
undertake complementary studies of climate change in Western Province by
providing funding for research, opening up research opportunities for PNG
researchers to work alongside Australian researchers in this area and for
Australian researchers to work in PNG. For example, the Australian Government
should consider offering scholarships or traineeships for PNG students to
participate in CSIRO's climate adaptation flagship.
The committee recommends that ACIAR consider including climate change
and the implications for coastal villages in PNG's southern region in its
research priorities for PNG (traditional fishing, the conservation of species,
including the dugong and turtle, and emergence and/or spread of exotic pests).
Before concluding this chapter, the committee wishes to refer to
evidence received regarding climate change in the Torres Strait and the Environmental
Management Committee (EMC) and the Joint Advisory Council (JAC).
In December 2009, DEWHA informed the committee that there had been minor
discussion on climate change issues at the recent EMC meeting at the start of
November. The department indicated that the issue had also been brought to EMC's
notice earlier in the year by the traditional inhabitants. According to the
department, the EMC determined that it was not the right forum for the
resolution of those issues, given that climate change departments were not
represented on the committee. Under the Treaty, the matter was referred to the
JAC, which determined that it also was not the correct forum to address issues
directly. It did, however, undertake to have climate change staff from both Australian
and PNG government departments address the committee the following year and
discuss the issues and share information with the traditional inhabitants.
Given the importance that local inhabitants attach to the effects of
climate change in their communities, the committee was surprised to learn that
this matter was not a key item for discussion at the EMC and the JAC. The
committee believes that the effects of climate change should be a matter that
both committees consider, especially in light of the concerns of local leaders.
The committee recommends that the Australian Minister for Foreign
Affairs consult with his PNG counterpart about removing immediately any
possible impediment to the Environment Management Committee and the JAC
considering climate change in the Torres Strait.
Consultation and cooperation in the region
The Torres Strait Treaty not only creates an international
border between Australia and PNG but is also instrumental in protecting the
traditional way of life of local inhabitants. It provides the framework within
which the Australian, PNG, state and provincial governments together with the
local people work as partners to protect and preserve the Torres Strait
environment and the livelihood of traditional inhabitants. In agreeing to the
Treaty, Australia and PNG also recognised the value of commercial fishing in
the region and the importance of promoting the 'conservation, management and
optimum utilisation of Protected Zone commercial fisheries'.
The effectiveness of the Treaty rests on the support, good will
and cooperation of all involved in its implementation. It relies, therefore, on
a high level of collaboration between the various levels of government. The
final part of this report examines the complex relationships between federal,
state and international government agencies. It recognises the importance of
local support for the Treaty and the arrangements for implementing its
provisions and managing community expectations
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