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The Climate Report - Tearfund's landmark research on climate, young Christians and the Church.

Prayer torres strait 2

'I cried for my home...'

Torres Strait Island Elder Aunty Rose Elu says she is shocked at the changes she has seen in her homeland, where climate change is causing sea levels to rise and homes are in danger of inundation.

Aunty Mc Rose Elu QLD Australian of the Year Salty Dingo 2020 PW 0833 220310 033558
Aunty Rose Elu is a Torres Strait Islander Elder, whose decades-long work as an advocate for Torres Strait communities and climate change saw her receive the 2021 Queensland Senior Australian of the Year Award. Photo: Salty Dingo

I come from one of the Torres Strait Islands, an island called Saibai. There are 17 inhabited islands in the Torres Strait and seven of them, including the island of my ancestors, are being inundated by sea. Inundation is flooding caused by rising sea levels. The Torres Strait Islands are very low lying. Inundation is a very serious risk factor for people on my island and for the people of the Torres Strait.

Torres Strait Islanders have lived on these Islands from time immemorial. God gave them to our ancestors, to us and to generations to come. We have been given them to live on, to be happy and to enjoy.

When I was young I remember that the sea was beautiful, crystal clear and the sea breeze would blow through the houses so beautifully. People would work in their gardens and walk around the Islands. People were definitely not rich but they were dedicated to living happy, healthy, Christian lives.

Prayer torres strait 1
Saibai Island in the Torres Strait Islands. Image © Brad Marsellos. Used with permission. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Climate change could change all this. When I look around now there are huge sea walls between us and the sea. These walls try to prevent the sea and the spray coming onto the Island. But with the changes in weather and sea level rise they often are not able to stop it.

I travel home on a regular basis with my work even though I live in Brisbane. Recently I was home on Saibai and I was shocked by the changes I saw. I cried for my home. The sea level was higher than I have ever seen it. The graves of my ancestors are being eroded and the elaborate graves we have made for them are being destroyed. The high tide washes them away now.

I wish I could take you to visit, to see what is really happening and to meet the people being affected. We often feel forgotten and alone. Australia feels so far away and the politics of Canberra and climate change feel so out of touch. The people who think that climate change is not an issue need to see and understand what is happening to us. We trust in God because God has given us these beautiful Islands to live on. The sea level rises that we have experienced, however, mean that we are in danger of losing our homes.

God has given me this land and the umbilical cord is buried here. Therefore if this is God’s will and if the island sinks, I will sink with it.

Some people have suggested that the people of the Torres Strait need to move away from our islands, to relocate. This would be very difficult for us. We have our own culture and traditions. We live off the sea and the islands. How could we move? Where would we move? Whose land would we live on? There are already people in Papua New Guinea. There are already traditional owners of the land in Australia. Where could we go? Where should we go?

An old lady from one island who was asked to relocate as her home was being inundated said “God has given me this land and the umbilical cord is buried here. Therefore if this is God’s will and if the island sinks, I will sink with it.”

The Elders and older people of the Torres Strait talk about what is happening as “God’s calling”. Something has broken on this planet and there is a message from God in this. The people of the Torres Strait have heard this message and desperately want to stay on the land God has given them. It is unthinkable to ask them to move away from their homes.

Climate change is a justice issue that God wants us to be actively engaged in. The young people understand what is happening. They are very actively engaged. They know how the water changes, how the bed of the ocean changes and the wind and the environment, gardens, vegetation and everything that we depend on to live is changing but we are in the hands of the Government. They make the decisions. They are not engaging with us on these issues.

For those who can not see the problem yet I say, “Stop! Look at what is happening to our islands!”

Prayer torres strait 2
Saibai Island in the Torres Strait Islands. Image © Brad Marsellos. Used with permission. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/
Prayer torres strait 3
Saibai Island in the Torres Strait Islands. Image © Brad Marsellos. Used with permission. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

We need global attention to what is happening here. We need Christians to come together and join our hands to tackle climate change. We need to work together to convince those who have refused to look at what is happening to our islands, who do not think that climate change is an important issue. We call on the heads of the churches to come together and take more responsibility to live in one faith and one hope, led by God on this.

My heart is determined to keep talking about this. Whatever strength I have I want to see this through. I do believe miracles happen and I am encouraging the young people on the low lying islands in the Torres Strait to take heart but I am also calling on those who make decisions to be wise. We need the leaders of the world who have the capacity to make decisions to govern well. We need to work hard to encourage more people to understand what is happening and how we can change the future.


Aunty Rose Elu is a Torres Strait Islander Elder, whose decades-long work as an advocate for Torres Strait communities and climate change saw her receive the 2021 Queensland Senior Australian of the Year Award.