Encroaching Waves and Retreating People: The Reality of Rising Sea Levels for Pacific Islanders

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Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR. April 2019. Pictured are homemade sea walls built around a village in the Republic of the Marshall Islands in an attempt to save its land from closing seas.

As anthropogenic activities continue to emit greenhouse gases and warm the planet, low-lying, atoll, pacific island nations risk drowning. This includes the Republic of Kiribati, the Maldives, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), and Tuvalu. Although these communities have faced coastal inundation and erosion for hundreds of years due to varying sea levels, oceans have risen exponentially since the 20th century; per annum, approximately 3.5 cm are added to the sea level. With a yearly increase of about 0.13 cm, scientists expect the sea level to rise by another metre by the end of the century if we continue on the same trajectory.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a branch of the UN, recently reported that concentrations of the three main greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane, reached record highs in 2021. Their growing emissions contribute to an ever-rapid glacier and ice-cap melt as well as warming waters, which expand as they heat. As developed, carbon-rich countries stand by idly, the atoll nations of the Pacific witness high-frequency compound coastal floodings due to storm surges, extreme rainfall and river flow. These destructive events will only increase as we stretch towards a 2ºC escalation of global temperatures. Even if industrialised countries reduce their carbon emissions significantly, oceans will still rise by a foot by 2050. 

Yet, only 70% of all coastal communities, including the atoll nations, have strategies in place to deal with future flooding. Moreover, a third of the world’s population is still unprotected by the UN’s  Multi-Hazard Warning System, with most security gaps present throughout island nations and the developing world. Increased floods and storms without such systems in place contribute to alarming death tolls, costly infrastructural damage, soil erosion, and a depletion of marine and terrestrial biodiversity that decreases nutrient availability. The health of such communities is also at risk, as salinated water carrying water-borne diseases seams into drinking water. 

At COP27, these countries banded together to demand a fund for their losses and damages be pooled by those developed nations expressly responsible. Hesitantly, the big nations agreed, yet, irreversible harm has  already been done. Affected developing nations continue searching for climate justice, and for rights to a wrong which they are least responsible for. Only the Maldives has taken concrete action towards adaptation independently, by constructing an artificial island to house urban expansion. Other atolls formulated plans to build islands, raise homes on stilts, fill lagoons, build dykes and sea walls, and dredge the coral reefs around their lands. Some of these actions will counterintuitively lower the islands’ defences to the encroaching sea level, and are both unsustainable and short-lived in the long run. Therefore, for some atolls, the only option is to turn their citizens into climate refugees – a part of the 200-250 million people that will evacuate their homes in the next 40 years because of climate change. 

Kiribati has already submitted to this unwelcome fate by purchasing 6,000 acres of land in Fiji, a raised island nation protected from rising oceans. The government also promotes “Migration with Dignity,” which is the preemptive migration of residents with employable skills to avoid future uncertainty. However, as entire nations face the loss of their homes and cultures, citizens must face the transition to new host countries alone, as they lack international support and legal protections.

International laws govern migration due to persecution, conflict, and disasters, since the formation of the 1952 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. However, the convention has neither amended the convention nor created new laws addressing climate refugees; although a global framework of climate mitigation and adaptation has been in place since a UN convention on climate change in 1992. The failure of the law to recognise migrants will leave them landless and stateless citizens. Communities of quickly sinking islands, like Kiribati and Tuvalu, are particularly vulnerable since their lands will be completely submerged by the end of the century.  

In Tuvalu, 40% of the capital is underwater during high tide. Though Tuvalu has been working towards cutting its minuscule greenhouse gas emissions and pursuing mitigation efforts, it can no longer wait for the international community to do the same – especially after the little progress since COP26. In the face of international law dilemmas, Tuvalu announced last week that it will upload its country to the metaverse to ensure its lands, culture, and sovereignty remain intact as it physically disappears below the waves. This undertaking will allow its citizens to interact inside the recreated state using augmented and virtual reality. Tuvalu’s decision ensures that its citizens will remain affiliated with a state despite permanent migration.

The future of atoll nations has been painfully outlined. As relocation becomes increasingly pressing, their people look towards an unwelcoming world in which most will transition alone; exacerbated by the diaspora’s loss of culture, land, and rights. The nations call for justice.  

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