The Torres Strait: Australia’s Pacific

Torres Strait council’s engineer, Mr McGuire, says sea walls are not the only answer to the damage arising from sea level rising.
The Torres Strait: Australia’s Pacific

<a><img src="" alt="Deteriorating sea walls at Warraber (Sue Island) on the high tide. (Courtesy of Mark Roy/Torres News Online)" title="Deteriorating sea walls at Warraber (Sue Island) on the high tide. (Courtesy of Mark Roy/Torres News Online)" width="320" class="size-medium wp-image-1797555"/></a>
Deteriorating sea walls at Warraber (Sue Island) on the high tide. (Courtesy of Mark Roy/Torres News Online)
It will take more than sea walls to alleviate the devastating impact of climate change in the Torres Strait, says the Torres Strait Regional Council’s executive manager of engineering services Patrick McGuire.

The Torres Strait is a body of water that lies between Australia and Papua New Guinea. To the south is Cape York Peninsula, the northernmost continental tip of the Australia’s Queensland State.

Rising sea levels have been of concern over a number of years and calls for financial help from the Australian Federal and Queensland State governments were answered on Aug. 24 – $22 million to build sea walls.

But the council’s engineer Mr McGuire says sea walls are not the only answer to the damage arising from sea level rising.

“There’s a combination of answers—part structural and part non-structural.”

He said the non-structural part needed proper planning, climate change adaptation and “lots of operational aspects, such as having to switch the sewage off for half a day till the tide goes out. I don’t think it’ll be very pleasant to be living there.”

In king tides, sea water gets into the sewage system, he said, forcing him to arrange turning the system off before the water seeps in. The pumps are restarted when the tide has receded which is every 12 hours.

Mr McGuire says these are just some of the issues that impact on the infrastructure and also on health, so he mentioned the issue to Queensland Minister for the Environment Vicky Darling, who was “horrified.”

Sea walls were useful to a point. “But more needs to be done and some tough decisions made in the future,” he said.

“We’ve done a lot of things—put sea walls in, raised houses up two stories with an area underneath,” he said, adding: “So people can always retreat to their island when half the island is covered by the sea and particularly if there’s a combination of events, such as if there’s a king tide and a cyclone or storm surge. I think it would be quite frightening sitting in a house above the ocean.”

Off the top his head, Mr McGuire said about 300 people lived on each of the habitable outer islands, numbering around 5000 in all. Another 42,000 live on the Australian mainland.

“They’re all affected; members of their family are affected. And you’ve got to bear in mind too that these are their traditional lands. These are the islands of the Torres Strait where Australia’s native laws came from. Eddie Mabo was a Torres Strait islander.”

Mr McGuire reiterated that there were a number of factors at play in the Torres Strait and climate change was just one.

“You don’t know what’s cyclical and what’s directly related to climate change,” he said. “I certainly am not a climate change sceptic, but I do believe there are cyclical issues that we haven’t paid enough attention to.

“In terms of coastal erosion, we have to be wary that that doesn’t impact on the need for good planning and mitigation, and adaption works.”
He said some of the sea walls built 25 years ago under a community work scheme have withstood the harshest elements. But others are over 30 years old and need to be rebuilt.

“That’s one of the issues that we’ve got; we need to rebuild them. But you’ve got to allow for the cyclical issues that I talked about—and climate change, so the question is where do we build them, how high we build them and where do you stop?”

Torres Strait Mayor Fred Gela has been vocal in his push for Government help. In a video posted by Mr Gela, he says the Torres Strait is the eyes and ears of the north, a significant region of Australia in more ways than one, but he fears the Torres Strait people could become the world’s first climate change refugees.

Climate Change in the Torres Strait- view video