”Now we can’t live on the beach anymore.” Members of the Kanare family are looking at the wide opening in the middle of the beach. The water is calm now, but on January 9th a flashflood coming down the valley broke through the beach from behind and thirteen families lost their houses, their homes.
It had rained heavily for a couple of days at Tumari, and with a record-high king tide and the heavy breakers hitting hard the beach started crumbling and giving way all along the bay. At the same time the river came roaring down from the back and more and more water gathered in the lagoon behind the beach. In the afternoon of the 9th the rain got even more intense and the water level behind their houses rose dangerously – they realized the beach would be flooded. The women and children got in to the dinghies that were around, the men tying them to the coconut palms.
At 9pm hell broke loose. The water from the back was suddenly flushing over the beach in all its length, under their houses, and chewing away the sand where it met with the breakers. At the northern end the water pushed through, braking three houses, washing them out to the sea. Oswald, the ward counselor, and his family were the first to see their house go. Just a few minutes later came the big opening in the middle of the beach; an avalanche of water taking the sand, eight houses, and all the belongings of the Kenare families into the ocean. Just like that – all gone!
A couple of hours after midnight the water started to go down, but before that they had called to friends and government representatives in Popondetta, the provincial capital, to let people know, and from there the news was put on Facebook right away. Some things have changed around Tufi.
When I visited Tumari in March the Red Cross arrived with food supplies. Most of the Tumari gardens had been completely demolished – only the sago and coconut palms could still give them food. Help was late, despite the calls sent out right away. It took two full weeks before the first aid shipment arrived (and this was by a donation from the Kokoda Tracking Foundation – cheers to them!). I witnessed a well organized handing out of supplies – rice, cooking oil, etc – to all families, and John, the Red Cross team leader, informed them that they would return shortly to make a long term assessment of their needs.
The community leaders had also come together to solve the housing situation, and land was now being cleared up on higher ground behind the school. There will be 22 houses – everyone on the beach will be moving up.
“We grew up here on the beach, and now we have to move. It’s going to be a big change. We are thankful, though, for all the help we’ve got from our families,” says Lucien Kanare. “You know, these are not even our own clothes.”
“We knew we would have to move one day,” continues his brother Leo, “because the beach has always been moving. But no one could have guessed that it would happen this way. So quickly, so dramatic, and so disastrous. We have seen the tides come higher and higher in the last years, and the elders say it’s never been this high before. We know it must be because of the climate changes, and so is the terrible rainfall. We are climate refugees right now, but luckily we have our relatives, and soon we will move up behind the school.“
Before and after:
In my book, Beautiful Tufi, I wrote about how the Tumari people were responding to the higher tides, but now they were hit from behind instead. Is that how climate change is going to hit us all one day: by surprise – even from behind!
Half a year has passed since I visited Tumari, and I know that several families have moved up to their new homes now. The Tumari people are strong and they will stay on their feet, but their beautiful village on the beach is gone forever.
The cover photo is from Tumari – it’s one of the houses that are still standing