Limits to climate change adaptation for low-lying communities in the Torres Strait

Authors: KE McNamara, SG Smithers, R Westoby, K Parnell
Year: 2011

This study explored adaptive capacity, adaptation limits/barriers and possible or existing maladaptation for communities on 2 morphologically different low lying islands in the Torres Straits. Although traditional resilience indicators such as income, access to education and other social services etc. are limited compared to those in mainland centers, financial and human livelihood assets were not considered limiting. This possibly reflects the engagement of many participants with a hybrid economy in which the market is only one sector – many people rely on income from government support in combination with income/benefits from harvesting natural resources. While natural resources play a central role, the interdependence between state, customary and market sectors provides a framework that can be highly productive, adaptive and resilient. Boigu is one of the lowest lying inhabited Torres Strait islands, and already experiences inundation by the sea during high spring tides and storm surges. The limited elevation on Boigu represents a very acute limit on the natural capital essential to sustain the island as a physical entity, let alone to support sustainable livelihoods within the resident community. Erub is a volcanic high island whose elevation provides greater options for adaptation from sea level rise although, the community has significant infrastructure, housing settlements and cultural sites on the low coastal fringe. Both island communities were found to possess strong human and social capital, underpinning significant adaptive capacity with which to face the challenges of climate change. Both islands also possess deficits in physical capital (e.g. shore line protection, water supply infrastructure), and natural capital.

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