The vanished island: Stories from Walande

This weekend I went to nearby Walande to learn more about the artificial island which vanished here. When the BBC’s Blue Peter programme came to film here in 2002, the island still accommodated around 1,000 people. Now, 17 years later, you can only see the remains of the former island.

Former Walande Island at low tide, 2019

I conducted participatory workshops and interviews with people to learn more about what happened to Walande Island and its people. While the analysis of the data will take months, here is a short summary of the stories that villagers were telling me about their former home on the man-made island:

Walande Island was washed away by several storm events and increasing sea levels over the last couple of decades. The first Walande people relocated to the nearby mainland after cyclone Namu had destroyed extensive parts of the island in 1986. More people followed in the 90s when recognition among Walande villagers increased that they could not win the fight against the incoming waves. For decades, the community had been protecting their home by building seawalls and raising houses on stilts, but the force of the waves was stronger and it became harder and harder to defend the island. Although villagers were very aware that the island was not a safe place, many people were reluctant to leave their homes. They were still hoping for help from God and mass relocation did not occur until the blessing of the new church on the mainland in the early 2000s. By 2009, the majority of Walande people were living at the new site on the mainland and in 2017 the last family on the island gave up and moved to higher ground in New Walande.

While it was very sad to witness the disappearance of the island with my own eyes, I was also very impressed with the community of Walande. With only little help from outside (Australian Aid had financed the bulldozing of Tetele land for settlement after cyclone Namu) the villagers managed to build themselves a new, safer home on the mainland. Structural planning, electricity, groundwater supply, easier access to gardens, medical services and education have improved the lives of people in the comunity and only few villagers would prefer to move back to the artificial island given the chance.

New Walande

However, challenges for Walande community are still plenty. The community is growing fast and space for expansion is limited. Changing rainfall patterns threaten crop production and rising sea levels impact mangroves around the shoreline, which act as fish nurseries. Furthermore, like everywhere in the Solomon Islands, many young people live aimlessly into the day, lacking identity and not learning traditional village survival skills. Walande community is calling for outside assistance to help them tackle these challenges.

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