The environmental crisis on Manus Island

Rising sea levels are washing away whole villages on Manus Island.
August 25, 2017

Amir Taghinia is the founder of Manus Alert, an online news agency coming directly from within Australia's immigration prison camp.

Taghinia is fluent in many languages and often finds himself as a negotiator between people who have been incarcerated in the Manus Island camp, local authorities and communities.

He holds a passion for the beautiful lands we live on and in and has read widely on environmental issues.

He acknowledges some editorial assistance from Melody Kemp and Janet Galbraith.

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Manus Island lies off the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea, almost 2° south of the equator. It is the largest of the Admiralty Islands, part of the Bismarck Archipelago, which consists of about 700 islands, only 200 of which are occupied. These rainforest-covered islands form part of Manus Province, the smallest and least-populous province of PNG’s Islands Region.

Many of these islands are showing signs of being affected by climate change. Despite having virtually no industry or manufacturing a smell of despair and the smell of the pollution that has been dumped here, pervades.

In the four years I have been detained in Australia’s immigration detention centre on Manus Island, I have noticed considerable change in the sea level and have heard from locals about the devastating impact of rising sea levels, deforestation and pollution on the Islands and their people.

Ronnie Knight, outgoing MP of Manus Province, said in the past three years, eight islands, which were used for hunting, fishing and farming, have been completely submerged causing many issues for those relying on those islands for food. Satellite footage confirms this.

In 2013, when I first visited the beach behind the centre, the shore was a wide expanse that offered a large, pleasant space for walking. Now the sea is very close to reaching the centre's perimeter. In the past four years, more than 20% of a paved walkway has disappeared.

Another important issue facing Manus Island is drought. Drought has left people with almost no water for six months of the year. Discussions with local people are often peppered with references to the increasing rises in temperature, which they say are very obvious, making life harder during the droughts that accompany recurrent El Nino events.

Most people living in Manus Province do not have reliable access to clean water. The main source of water is rainwater caught in tanks, followed by bores and wells. Many of the outer islands do not have a clean water source at all. Water caught in tanks is not always clean and water borne diseases as well as digestive and water borne skin conditions are common, especially in those new to Manus.

Disturbingly, Knight reported “ground water quality has been affected by waste produced by the Australian asylum seeker Regional Processing Centre”. In 2012 after the Processing Centre was re-opened, the Australian government began dumping waste in the sea, a practice criticised by Amnesty International in its 2013 report. A water filtration plant has recently been set up and we are told this is filtering and neutralising human waste and sewage before it is again pumped into the sea.

Following the Amnesty International report, the Australian government rented a space close to the airport and hired a private contractor, SPG Ltd, to dispose of the rubbish from the refugee centre.

Medical waste from the detention centre is incinerated producing dioxides and mercury that float over the island in heavy plumes of smoke. The ash from this is then buried, along with mountains of waste of all sorts, including human waste, plastics and food refuse. This waste, without being properly contained and sealed before being put in the ground is often mixed with waste water that leaches out, contaminating the clean ground water.

In an interview with Janet Galbraith, Knight pointed out that this waste is currently being buried in the most suitable areas for agriculture on the island. In 2015, The Loop reported that Luoni people on Los Negros Island, where the detention centre is located, helped others on Manus who could not access clean drinking water by drawing from their own underground water supply and loading this water in to boats to distribute to those who need it.

Worryingly, Los Negros Island is where a contractor paid for by the Australian government is busy contaminating the public water supply.

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