Rennell Island sits in the middle of the Solomon Sea northeast of Australia. It’s a paradise best known for harbouring the largest raised coral atoll in the world, which members of the Tehakatu’u tribe rely on for fish to eat. The island’s extraordinary ecology landed it on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1998, but now it and the people who rely on it are threatened.
More than a month ago, on February 5, cyclone-associated weather pushed a cargo ship carrying bauxite, the ore mined to produce aluminium, into the reef along Rennell Island’s Kangava Bay, where it began to spill heavy fuel, according to the Australian government, which is aiding the Solomon Islands government with response to the spill.
As of Tuesday, some 110 tonnes of oil have spilled into the water. More than 660 tonnes remain on the ship, called the Solomon Trader, per the Australian government, and the oil slick spans about 5km.
It’s quickly moving toward the UNESCO site, but it’s already impacting the way of life for the roughly 1200 people who live on the island, including members of the Tehakatu’u tribe.
They’ve been advised to avoid their traditional drinking water source — rainwater collected in 2271L tanks — because oil fumes may have evaporated and contaminated the water.
The fumes are so bad that people have been complaining about headaches and chest pain, said Stephen Nikamatu’a, a 28-year-old tribe member who lives on the island. Residents must wear face masks provided by Bintan Mining Corporation, which The New York Times reports had chartered the ship.
Nikamatu’a has been documenting the damage on his Facebook page, posting photos of an oil-soaked shore and a blue boat stained black with oil. His community’s “day-to-day life is not normal right now,” he told us via Facebook messenger.
“The sea where we rely on for generations [has] become our enemy,” he wrote.
The children may be especially hard-hit. Their walk to school is typically along the shores of the spill zone, explained Garedd Porowai, a committee member of Forum Solomon Islands International, a charity in the Solomon Islands coordinating donations.
Witnessing the devastation not only interrupts students’ ability to focus on school; it also could be impacting their health if they breathe in the fumes.
While help has been slow, the Australian government deployed an eight-person response team on March 1 to assess and begin remediating the situation.
Willie Sau Kaitu’u, a project coordinator with the Tehakatu’u Development Association, said the Red Cross is on the ground providing “basic kits” to rural communities and that local nurses are going around the villages to help residents understand potential health risks from the spill.
What his people need, he told us via email, is for their water to be checked regularly. People must now rely on imported food such as rice and canned fish, but not everyone can afford it, Kaitu’u said. Authorities must ensure public health is secure.
The vessel’s insurer, Korea Protection and Indemnity Club, and its owner, King Trader Ltd., are apparently feeling awful about the situation, reports The Guardian, but feelings won’t fix anything. They are however, attempting to move the remaining fuel oil higher on the ship and eventually off it altogether to prevent further pollution to the area, per The Guardian.
“All focus on the wrecked vessel and oil spill, but nothing is done to help my people who are directly exposed to and affected by the effects of the oil spill,” said Derek Pongi, the Tehakatu’u Development Association chairman, in an email to us.
“What we urgently need now is deployment of health inspectors to inspect and assess the health of our people and their source of food and water.”
We reached out to Korea Protection and Indemnity Club and Bintan Mining Corporation for clarification on how they plan to remediate the situation, how they plan to help local islanders return to their regular lives, and whether a contingency plan for such an event existed before the incident. We had not heard back at time of writing.
The tribal association has hired an independent firm currently on site to conduct an environmental assessment, Pongi told us. For now, the association is planning to send bottled water and canned food next week to Rennell Island that should last residents a week.
But the chairman is worried that their “beautiful beaches and clear water” may take years to recover, which could means years until locals can fish for their food again.
Coral reefs are especially sensitive to oil spills: They can die or experience disruption to their growth and reproduction, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This has ripple effects on sea creatures that dwell in them that local people eat and sell.
The World Heritage Center recognises the need to help the community develop sustainable livelihoods, said Robbert Casier, an assistant program specialist there, to us. Currently, logging and bauxite mining on the island provide income to locals, which makes the situation all the more touchy.
“Development of ecotourism and small businesses that derive benefits from the conservation of the World Heritage site, the traditional knowledge of the Polynesian community, and their cultural values is key for the future,” wrote Casier in an email to us.
“While the World Heritage site is a true natural laboratory for scientific study and has a high number of endemic species, birds and seabirds, there is a real need for more scientific information to understand this ecosystem better.”
This event threatens the island’s untapped scientific potential — discoveries that may be necessary to help its people thrive in our ever-changing world. Imported canned food and noodles just won’t cut it.