See How Pacific Islanders Are Living With Climate Change

For indigenous communities in the Pacific, adapting to the impacts of rising seas, fierce storms, and other challenges has become a necessity.

Global temperatures hit record highs the past three years in a row—and the people of the Pacific have been feeling the effects.

The Pacific region has experienced devastating cyclones, storm surges, coral bleaching, and irregular rainfall patterns. Sea level rise threatens low-lying islands, where salt water infiltrates drinking water wells and kills staple food crops, as well as damaging property.

Photographer Vlad Sokhin has been documenting environmental changes in Pacific communities since 2013. Sokhin focuses on indigenous communities who are adapting to challenges created primarily by carbon emissions from developed countries, he says.

Children play on a rusty shipwreck in Betio on South Tarawa, Kiribati. The ship was lifted by king tides and crashed into a seawall in February 2015.

“In every country I’ve seen effects of global warming and climate change,” he says. “Different countries face different effects. For example, in Guam, the biggest challenge is coral bleaching, but in the last few years, the cyclones have become more intense.”

Abnormally warm ocean waters can bleach corals, which occurs when stressed corals expel the colorful algae living within their tissues. Coral bleaching threatens the reef ecosystem, but increasingly intense cyclones and tropical storm surges pose immediate danger to island residents.

After Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu many communities were left without freshwater supplies. Oxfam organized an airport water tank truck to come to the villages around Port Vila.

Two category-five cyclones hit the Pacific in the past two years: Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu in March 2015, and Cyclone Winston hit Fiji in February 2016. Winston was the strongest tropical cyclone to hit the Southern Hemisphere in recorded time.

Tokelau's Teafua Tanu Islet has traditionaly been used as a cemetery. Other islets are used for raising hogs, planting crops, or harvesting timber. But this orderly way of life is being disrupted by rising seas.

Low-lying nations further north in the Central Pacific are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. Most of these islands are coral atolls, or ring-shaped reef islands that lie only a few meters above sea level. Some communities in Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands are surrounded by water at high tides, Sokhin says.

Sea level rise in combination with man-made changes to the shoreline can exacerbate coastal erosion. But some low-lying reef islands have actually grown in size despite rising sea levels. Whether the islands disappear or not, local communities face difficult living conditions at high tides.

About 45 percent of Tuvalu's 10,000 people were displaced by Cyclone Pam. Taufiso, 9, rides a bicycle through a flooded area of Tanrake village.

When the water rises around these islands, it can disturb graveyards, infiltrate drinking water wells, and kill staple food crops like breadfruit trees or taro. Even with these challenges, most people do not want to leave the land their families have lived on for generations.

“The most resilient people that I’ve ever met traveling around the world live in the Pacific. People still try to cope and adapt, and sometimes the conditions are really harsh. But most people say, ‘This is our land, we need to find a solution.’”

laji, 14, dances in a house that was abandoned after storm damage in Jernok, a village in the Marshall Islands. The structure has become a popular hangout place for teenagers and adult partiers.

In Tokelau, a small Polynesian community north of Samoa, communities are preemptively adapting to climate change. A community of about 350 residents on Fakaofo, one of Tokelau’s three atolls, enclosed their entire islet in five-meter high concrete walls, Sokhin says.

Children ride a boat to school on Fakaofo Atoll, Tokelau.

“When I was approaching, it looked like a fortress in the middle of the Pacific,” he says. Tokelau, a territory of New Zealand, is also entirely solar powered, he says. “It’s a model of how other countries and other atoll nations could manage their land and adapt to conditions.”

Tokelau is the first nation that uses 100 percent renewable energy for its everyday needs. Lagi, 22, drives an electric golf cart near a Fakaofo solar array station on Fenua Fala Islet.

Header Image: Marina Kalo, 30, is a mother of five whose home in Pang Pang village in Vanuatu was damaged by Cyclone Pam in March 2015. The category 5 storm is one of the worst to hit the island nation in recent memory and killed 11 people. PHOTOGRAPH BY VLAD SOKHIN, PANOS 

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