People on one of the Torres Strait's largest island of Saibai celebrate a long-awaited seawall after more than a decade of pleading, but the future is less certain for other sinking island communities.Saibai is a low-lying mud island just a short dinghy trip from Papua New Guinea, which has been struggling with rising sea levels, land erosion and king tides for years.
At the peak of the crisis, there were fears that the entire community of 350 people would need to be relocated.
Its cemetery became a symbol of this crisis when graves started being eroded away.
Photo: Saibai's cemetery became a symbol of rising sea levels when graves started washing away. (ABC News: Emilia Terzon)
"The flood and the rain — it overflows the land," local fisherman Durua Durua told the ABC this week.
In 2012, the Torres Strait Island Regional Council concluded it would cost $22 million to build seawalls and upgrade infrastructure on Saibai and five other Torres Strait islands suffering from rising sea levels.
Two years later, the Federal and Queensland governments pledged $26.2 million for these islands under the Torres Strait Seawalls project.
This week, the first seawall built with that money was unveiled on Saibai, to much celebration of residents.
Speaking to crowds on Saibai, Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) chairman Napau Pedro Stephens said the island was used to being ignored, but that had changed with the seawall's construction.
"We have global thinking, but we act locally — this is a project that really defines that saying," he said.
Queensland Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships Mark Furner said it would help the community.
"It's a project that will protect the community, protect the culture, protect the homes and also the livelihoods of all those people," he said.The seawall is forecast to protect Saibai from inundation for 50 years.
Saibai seawall came at large price with cost blowoutsBut after cost blowouts mostly linked to the sourcing of rock, it came at a very large price — $24.5 million.
This leaves just a few million in the coffers for the other Torres Strait islands that are still in danger of being lost, as sea levels continue to rise by millimetres each year.
Photo: The seawall is forecast to protect Saibai from inundation for 50 years. (ABC News: Emilia Terzon)
Federal MP Warren Entsch, who helped bring Saibai's plight to national attention, said the Commonwealth still wanted to help the other five communities.
Yet Mr Entsch said the devil was in the detail when it came to committing extra money.
"How long is a piece of string? We were guaranteed that the cost that we put up [last time] would cover the six islands," he said."Torres Strait island council is the one that managed the Saibai contract — that's the reality."
Photo: A child plays behind the leaky seawall on Saibai in February 2012, the largest island in the Torres Strait. (ABC: Brad Marsellos - file photo)
It was the same response from Mr Furner, who could not put a dollar figure on how much would be committed.
"Not at this stage — I think we need to see the scoping work on those other islands," he said.
'Time is very critical' to protect other islandsTorres Strait Mayor Fred Gela said costings were underway on seawalls for several islands and preliminary talks with funding bodies were promising.
"All we can do is work closely with state and Commonwealth and the likes of TSRA — we've had some very good productive preliminary discussions already," he said.
Yet Councillor Gela also said that time was of the essence, especially when it came the narrow coral island of Poruma, to the south of Saibai.
"Time is very critical in terms of getting some work underway so we can actually protect and combat erosion at Poruma — Poruma doesn't have time to wait," he said.