Climate change forum's hot topic

In 2004, then president of the Marshall Islands, Kessai Note, claimed his people could become the world's first climate refugees.

In 2013, his country is battling back from a drought so severe it saw a state of national disaster declared, while last month the nation's capital Marjuro was swamped by 2.5-metre waves which crashed over the low-lying coral atoll, smashing the sea wall in places and forcing the closure of the airport.

Current president, Christopher Loeak, blames climate change.

The "unprecedented" drought was so severe, desalination plants had to be shipped in to supply fresh water, crops failed, and social and health issues among the Marshallese arose.

The Marshall Islands hosts the 44th Pacific Islands Forum this month and has designated the theme to be climate change.

At the forum, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key is expected to face questions about this country's climate change policy.

New Zealand Red Cross worker Ana Zarkovic is still dealing with the effects of the drought in the Marshall Islands, which affected 6000 people.

Life in the outer atolls was simple but tough, she said, and many still lived in traditional huts, made from pandanus leaves. She was working with the Marshallese on rainwater catchment to ensure as much as possible is caught and stored, and with intermittent recent rain, tanks are between a third and half-full.

"Currently, there is sufficient drinking water," she said.

"The communities are concerned that the seasonal rains they depend on will not come this year. They are uncertain about the future."

The Red Cross was also working on educating people about water conservation though, through necessity, they were already well-versed in this.

Everybody was hoping the drought was a one-off "but nobody knows", she said.

Climate change - including rising sea levels - was coming to the forefront of people's minds.

"My personal opinion is that climate change is something the communities are starting to talk about on a day to day basis, in particular, how unusual weather is affecting their livelihoods - in particular the drinking water" Zarkovic said.

"The communities that I have spoken to in Namu Atoll are concerned that the drought will happen again in the near future."

The Red Cross says climate change is a key driver of disaster in the Pacific and Pacific communities are already facing the frequency and intensity of climate change-driven weather events.

President Loeak has called for the signing of a Marjuro Declaration on climate change at this year's forum.

The declaration is billed as a road map to speed action on climate change and will call for governments and civil society organisations to sign up with their own measurable commitments.

He has said that they had always looked to New Zealand and Australia as their partners, but on climate change, they wanted the two countries to be leaders.

His foreign minister Phillip Muller wrote in June that World Bank forecasts that the world could see a rise in temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, would lead to sea levels rising between one and two metres.

This would be a "death sentence" for his country.

With three of the world's four coral atolls in the Pacific - Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands - the threat of climate change was very real for those living there.

Labour foreign affairs spokesman Phil Goff believes Key is likely to face a hard time from Pacific leaders over New Zealand's climate-change policies.

"I think there's been expressed over time a growing frustration about New Zealand's relinquishing of the role of leadership on the climate-change issues," he said.

Goff said that on a visit to the Marshall Islands in 2004, former President Note told him "my people will be the first environmental refugees in the world".

The Marshallese contributed little to global warming "but they're the first victims of it".

"I think they would like to see much more of New Zealand standing up and taking a lead on that issue," Goff said.

The Pacific Islands Forum secretariat has already stressed the "critical and urgent need for financing to effectively respond to climate change". 

Fairfax Media