Disappearing paradise: How will the Pacific island people cope with the rising sea?

Kiribati is a Pacific Island facing the immediate impact of rising sea levels and has been looking towards relocation as a possible solution. Forced migration due to climate change has put pressure on urban cities and tensions have risen around questions of national moral responsibility. What will be the fate of ‘climate refugees’ and will artificial island building be the answer to disappearing nations?

Unfortunately, the human species was not designed to live and breathe underwater. This biological shortcoming has become an everyday concern for coastal communities being threatened by the rising sea. Disappearing islands are not merely a geographic issue but one that raises a multitude of other concerns regarding environmental justice, overcrowding and population displacement.

It has been estimated that 665,000-1.7 million people in the Pacific may be displaced or forced to migrate by 2050 and this figure will only continue to multiply. Small island nations are seeking help from the developed world; however, their pleas are not being heard. The isolated islands of the Republic of Kiribati, located in the central Pacific, are a subsistence fishing community that is being faced with the difficult task to relocate a population of approximately 100,000 inhabitants. The government of Kiribati has requested Australia and New Zealand to accept them as refugees however neither country has made an offer, forcing President Anote Tong to look towards other options.

The issue of rising sea levels has brought forward questions regarding refugee status and whether climate related events should be considered in the refugee convention. Loane Teitota from Kiribati was the first man to seek asylum as a ‘climate refugee’ for fear of his family’s future however his claim was denied by the New Zealand courts. “I’m the same as people who are fleeing war. Those who are afraid of dying, it’s the same as me,” he told the BBC.

The 1951 UN Convention relating to the status of refugees does not recognize ‘climate change refugees’, therefore states have no current legal responsibility to assist people seeking asylum as a result of climate change. However, the head of the Refugee Council of Australia stated that the Australian government should expand its national definition on a moral basis; to include people affected by climate related causes to offer the same protection to people fleeing countries of conflict or political oppression. The pressing issues faced by small island nations challenge our understanding of refugee status, the effects of climate change and its impact on human mobility.

According to former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Bob Carr, Kiribati will become uninhabitable by 2030 – less than fifteen years from today. Anote Tong has already taken precautionary measures by purchasing land on Fiji over 1,000 miles away and looking to invest in artificial island building.

Perhaps the new artificial archipelago in The Netherlands called Ijburg, where 6 of the planned 10 islands have already been completed, spells out hope for Kiribati. Artificial land has been constructed using the Dutch technique called the ‘pancake method’ and are now inhabited with the aim to house up to 45,000 people. Through innovation, Amsterdam seems to have created a solution to a problem of overcrowding, however how economically plausible is it for Pacific Islands to whip up several island pancakes?

Two children walk along the shore of their Island Nation Kiribati. Photo by the United Nations. Source: Flickr

The process of artificial island building also brings with it another dimension of environmental concerns. Land reclamation has been practiced for years in the South China Sea and, as a consequence, sediment concentration has increased, fish stocks are depleting and the coral reefs are being severely damaged. Is there no way to escape climate change without creating other avenues for human-induced environmental degradation?

Two Kiribati islands have already become submerged and it is only a matter of time before the entire group of Pacific Islands will be a part of the seabed. Many of the Kiribati villagers living along the coast have had to rebuild their homes every 3 years further and further inland. Overcrowding from villagers migrating into the capital Tarawa has created problems of pollution, disease and poor sanitation.

However, Kiribati does not want to sit back and wait for an inevitable crisis moment. It has instead taken a proactive stance, implementing sustainable adaptation policies, and setting an example for other climate-affected island states. The Ikiribati government has begun a migration with dignity program sending citizens abroad to Australia and New Zealand for skills training with the hopes to eventually integrate into these societies. Despite the imminent dangers, Ikiribati villagers would rather stay on their Pacific Island as they share a spiritual connection to the land and their ancestors. The community has taken measures to prevent the sea level rise as much as possible by planting mangroves along the coast. Even as a country without an industry contributing to carbon emissions, Kiribati has taken a step towards environmental sustainability by creating a marine reserve to preserve the local tuna. They ask large developed countries to show empathy and reduce their carbon emissions.

Moving an entire nation of people from one island to another may not be as conceivable as, say, moving the entire city of Kiruna a few kilometers East but it may be the only option for Pacific Island nations. As much as climate change mitigation policies can be put in place to reduce carbon emissions, an immediate rescue mission needs to be deployed to save the people of Kiribati. At this stage, without any country claiming responsibility, the fate of Kiribati lies in the hands of Anote Tong. How many other nations will be desperately island hopping by the end of the decade?

Micaela Williams

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