The vanishing islands of the Pacific

 By Amanda Saint

Climate change and rising sea levels are already making life in low-lying tropical islands in the Pacific difficult. Increases in global temperatures mean that many of these islands are likely to be completely submerged in the coming years…

A report published by The Center for Climate and Security in June 2017 titled “Epicenters of Climate and Security: The New Geostrategic Landscape of the Anthropocene” highlights the plight of the small Pacific island nations of Kiribati, Tokelau, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands.
The report shows that globally sea levels have already risen by a rate of at least 2.8 mm a year for the past decade and that, due to geographical conditions relating to factors such as the wind, ocean currents, and gravitational forces, some small island states have already seen rates of sea level rise four times higher than global averages. Factor in that in Tuvalu, 100 percent of the population lives less than 16 feet above sea level, and in the Marshall Islands and Kiribati, more than 95 percent of the population does, then the impact of these rising sea levels becomes clear.

But this is not the only threat from climate change that these islands are facing. Ocean acidification is bleaching corals affecting tourism, which is a major economic driver for these countries. Some of the islands that make up Kiribati have seen the corals in their lagoons completely wiped out by bleaching. It’s also affecting fish populations that the islanders rely on for food and trade. Less fresh water is available as rivers and streams are being taken over by seawater. In the Marshall Islands, a severe drought in 2016 led to a state of national emergency being declared and international aid having to be supplied to keep islanders fed.

Building in Majuro, Marshall Islands (mrlins, Wikimedia)

The combined population of these three island countries, along with the much more sparsely populated Tokelau, is around 176,000. These people are facing the fact that they are likely to lose their homes, jobs and businesses in the coming years. They, or their descendants, will become climate refugees. Unless plans and policies are developed for them to become economic immigrants.

Immigration options

New Zealand and Australia are already common destinations for immigrants from these Pacific islands seeking work, but the numbers of people that can enter the countries each year are limited. There are calls for new policies that allow more islanders to relocate more easily. But what strains does this put on economies and infrastructure if people that emigrate there are unable to work and contribute?
New Zealand is already facing significant issues of its own following the large earthquakes that have hit the South Island in recent years. Christchurch had not recovered and rebuilt from the 6.3 magnitude quake that hit the city in 2011—which killed 185 people, injured thousands and caused huge damage to infrastructure, homes and businesses—when it was affected by another large quake in November 2016. Add to this constant earthquake threat the impacts the country is likely to see because of climate change, which include increased temperatures, then it becomes clear that any increased immigration has to be carefully planned and managed so that settlers don’t face further displacement in the future.

Rose Chapel, Christchurch, after the 2011 earthquake (Andy Miah, Wikimedia)

Australia is not exempt from climate change issues of its own either. Fresh water is already scarce, as is quality agricultural land, temperatures regularly exceed 40 degrees, bush fires often rage for several days at a time threatening and destroying homes, and just like the Pacific islands, many of its communities are at sea level. The country has already made global headlines for turning away boats full of refugees and has hundreds of thousand of residency applications in excess of spaces available.
But at the same time, Australia is looking at ways it can help Pacific islanders affected by climate change issues. The Kiribati-Australia Nursing Initiative is a pilot program developed to provide enhanced migration opportunities that work for both countries. Approximately 90 young people from Kiribati went through nurse training in Australia, giving them the qualifications needed to secure a job in the healthcare sector in Australia and other countries around the world.
The President of Kiribati has also been preparing for eventual evacuation by buying land in Fiji, which is currently used to grow food that is then imported back to the islands. But when climate change makes Kiribati uninhabitable, it is thought this land could potentially provide a new home for many of the displaced Kiribatians. But not all countries will be able to do this in advance. Fiji is another Pacific island nation facing severe impacts from climate change. In 2012, the village of Vunidogoloa on Fiji’s second largest island had to relocate to higher ground due to sea-level rise. The governments of many countries, including Germany, Bangladesh and Australia are now working together to try and find the best ways to protect and help the ever increasing numbers of people displaced by the impacts of disasters and climate change.

SEE MORE: The sense of Inuit for climate change by Michelle Leslie

about the author
Amanda Saint
Journalist and content writer, specialised in engineering and technology with a focus on environmental sustainability, urbanisation and biotechnology.