In Tokelau, a fight to reclaim homes from rising tides


By Mackenzie Smith

A small 2-metre sea wall is all that protects Tokelau’s Fakaofo atoll from the rising tides, and waters already lap at its highest point.

But there are gaps even in the tiny defence it offers Fale, Fakaofo’s main islet.

In one corner, four huge concrete blocks have fallen on their side and lie useless as the tide rushes by them and up into the empty husk of Fofo Poasa’s former home.

The damage is hardly new – Mr Poasa and his family abandoned it in 1972, fleeing to New Zealand.

“Without a wall here, their property might as well be beach,” said John Puka, a friend of Mr Poasa’s.

While Tokelauan families with means have been able to repair their sections of the seawall, others unable to afford construction costs have been left adrift, said Mr Puka.

The lost home on Fale points to the wider threat climate change poses to Tokelau, which shares the 2-metre separation from sea level across its three atolls.

In a recent step-up of engagement with its last territory, New Zealand has announced several climate change-focused initiatives.

Part of a $NZ100 million boost in climate-related assistance over the next four years will help reduce the risk of coastal flooding in Tokelau.

Last week Civil Defence Minister Kris Faafoi toured its three atolls as the first New Zealand Minister to do so since 2004, announcing disaster relief packages and a new weather station on Nukunonu atoll to monitor changes in the climate.

“They’ve been here for centuries but along with the rest of the world, they face the challenge of climate change and because as you can see here of the the nature of their coastline, they’ll feel it more than others,” said Mr Faafoi.

It is likely New Zealand and Tokelau will work together on coastal barriers and protections in the future but this is pending further research, including from the new weather station, he said,

Mr Poasa, 67, who lost his home in Fakaofo, isn’t waiting around. He’s repairing his own section of the sea wall by hand, hoping to rebuild his family in their home there.

Stone by stone, he estimates it will take around 6 months to complete.


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