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Moving a Capital

The engine silenced, our small craft drifted toward the southern bank of the slender jungle river. Around us, dangling lofty arcs of creepers, rose the mangrove forest, as tall as a built-up inner city district and much more densely packed, with little light penetrating to its lower reaches. A pair of large hornbills flew over the river; the flap of their heavy wings sounded like jute sacks half-filled with rice. From somewhere far to my left came the whine of a lone chainsaw, part of a Malaysian-owned logging operation. And to my right, on 500 hectares stuffed with more vegetation than air, was the site earmarked for the new capital of Choiseul, the westernmost province of the Solomon Islands.


My companion on the boat, a scholarly figure cradling a handheld location tracker, was Isaac Lekelalu, a civil service veteran leading the extraordinary initiative to move an entire provincial capital to a site more resilient to climate change. “This is a choice we have to make, in order to survive,” Lekelalu said. It is one of the first projects of its kind – and may hold important lessons for others to follow in the decades to come, as coastal settlements on every continent come under growing threat from rising sea level.

Isaac Lekelalu © Simon Mundy

It’s an accident of history, Choiseul provincial officials kept stressing to me, that the small coral island of Taro became their capital in the first place. Taro’s flatness — in contrast with the hilly major island of Choiseul — made it a good site for a military airstrip during the bloody Solomon Islands campaign of World War II. (A 1944 New Yorker piece chronicled the epic survival story, a few hours to the south, of a shipwrecked young naval lieutenant named John F Kennedy, who scrawled an SOS message to base on a coconut that would later sit on his Oval Office desk.)


The grass airstrip, and the modest infrastructure that developed around it after the war, meant Taro became the administrative hub when Choiseul was granted provincial status in a 1992 shake-up. But the province's new government was keenly aware of Taro's tiny area – just half a square mile – and immediately started discussing an expansion to the nearby mainland. For years, these plans languished, with national leaders showing little interest. But now, the Choiseul leadership is pushing with new urgency, not just for an expansion but for a wholesale relocation of the township, home to about 1,000 of the province’s 26,000 people. The driver is the realisation that thanks to sea level rise — far more rapid here in recent years than the global average — their island, already too cramped, is shrinking.


The relocation has become an obsession for Geoffrey Pakipota, Choiseul’s provincial secretary, a grave white-haired 49-year-old who started work on the plans aged 23. I found him in the yard behind his home on Taro’s eastern edge, taking a rest day after a week of meetings in the national capital of Honiara to seek support for the project. Pakipota rose from his hammock to show me the shoreline erosion closing in on his and other houses. Just a few paces away, the cracked grey earth gave way to a mass of roots, tangled like electrical wires, that protruded over a tiny beach of stones lapped by the sea. Several metres out to sea was the site of the old marketplace.

The eastern shore of Taro Island © Simon Mundy

The market now stands further inland, a covered oblong of stalls selling cassava, bananas and taro, the stodgy root vegetable that presumably gave the island its name. Across a muddy football field stands a primary school and a methodist church; a right turn on the unpaved main road swiftly brings you to the government building, a small red-painted L-shape with a neatly tended garden. It takes less than ten minutes to walk the length of the island, past clusters of wood-panelled houses to the shaded beach fringing its northern edge. Every one of the residents I spoke to supported the relocation plan. They no longer felt safe in this island, too small and getting smaller. And the recentness of the island’s development means that — unlike in others such as Nuatambu — most residents do not have long-standing family ties to it.


Over the past five years, Pakipota has spearheaded the new momentum brought to the relocation drive by Choiseul’s government. In 2014, it commissioned a detailed study from Australian consultancy BMT WBM, which backed the relocation, warning that the island was set to lose a further 30 per cent of its land area by 2090. It’s started pumping in funds from its meagre provincial budget to get the process moving. In 2016 it completed the $1.2m purchase of land for the new town. Shortly before my visit, the provincial government hired surveyors to carry out an advanced land demarcation study — it had already mapped out the basic zoning structure of the new town — and engineers to start preparing its main road.


But the actual construction of the new capital is far beyond the means of the provincial government, which relies on an annual federal grant and modest tax revenue from logging activity. Even the national government can hardly afford to fund Pakipota’s plans, which will cost — if a planned new port is factored in — hundreds of millions of dollars. The gross domestic product of the Solomon Islands is just $1.4 billion, a bit over $2,000 per person. But if the national leadership throws itself behind the relocation project, the Choiseul government hopes, it could secure some of the billions in funding that major economies have promised to help developing nations adapt to climate change.


So, the week before my arrival, Pakipota and Lekelalu and most of their senior colleagues had pursued an exhausting series of meetings in Honiara, lobbying prime minister Mannaseh Sogavare and all his main cabinet ministers for assistance. A breakthrough remained elusive, and the frustration of the endless campaigning was showing.


“The national government has been too slow,” Pakipota said. “They are not innovative enough.” In tiny Nuatambu I had seen how the effects of sea level rise could pull a small community apart. Geoffrey now warned it could have a similar effect at national level in a country that is highly fragmented both geographically and culturally. Papua New Guinea, ten times the Solomons’ size in population and economic clout, was less than 50km to the west, the mountains of Bougainville easily visible across the sea. If Honiara kept neglecting the needs of this distant province, Geoffrey said, “there is the question of whether Choiseul will still be part of the Solomon Islands”.

Taro Island, seen from the southeast © Simon Mundy

The main reason for the slow progress is political instability, said Hudson Kauhiona, the jovial climate change division head at the national environment ministry, when I met him in the capital before flying to Taro. Civil servants in the ministry have been working on a national relocation policy for years, but every time a new government comes in — most recently in April, less than 18 months after the previous change — the momentum falls away. And with no formal framework in place for handling such a complex project, it is hard to move forward. “We keep saying we’ll do it, but we don’t,” Kauhiona said.


So the Choiseul team has started opening direct lines of communication with foreign powers. On the last day of their trip to Honiara, they had visited the ambassador of Japan, which has backed a string of recent infrastructure developments including an overhaul of the capital’s airport. They are paying close attention, meanwhile, to the national government’s deliberations on whether it should abandon its stance as one of a tiny handful of states to have formal relations with Taipei rather than Beijing – something that could open a new wave of Chinese money into the Solomons.


This week the UK and France announced new contributions totalling over $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund: a body central to the rich world pledge of delivering $100 billion a year in climate-related assistance to developing countries by 2020. The Trump administration’s hostility to climate action has cast that target into doubt. But my travels in the Solomons have heightened my interest in the projects that lie behind the numbers.


On the day I arrived in the country, the GCF and the World Bank signed a funding agreement on a major new hydroelectric plant to power Honiara, shifting the capital city away from its reliance on diesel generators. The project has been controversial, attacked by environmental activists who say it will destroy wildlife and drive dangerous methane emissions. With $86m in GCF funding it’s one of the single largest projects to get backing from the fund. The GCF has invested much more in renewable power projects than in helping developing countries cope with and prepare for the effects of climate change: according to its website, 42 per cent of its investment have been in “mitigation” projects, and only 24 per cent on “adaptation”, despite its goal of an even split.


Officials in Honiara and Taro told me that they would have thought the Choiseul relocation should be precisely the kind of thing the GCF ought to be supporting – but they didn’t show much hope that it would do so. A power plant proposal is far easier for a financial body to cost and evaluate than one to move 1,000 people, Kauhiona said. But as sea level rise accelerates in the years ahead, the question of how to assist those displaced by it will become increasingly urgent.


In places like Choiseul, international bodies have an opportunity to gain experience in the kind of relocation work that will over time be needed in coastal areas throughout the world. Until that funding comes, the Taro township relocation will remain the pipe dream of an increasingly desperate provincial government. “It doesn’t matter where the money comes from,” Watson Qoloni, Choiseul’s premier, told me in the administration’s tiny office complex, maps of the future township pinned to the wall behind him. “Whether it comes from God or Satan, we’ll take it.”