Thursday, December 10, 2009

On Kiribati and climate change and island nation migration

Kiribati, a collection of very low-lying islands in Micronesia almost absurdly vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels has just announced how it intends to make sure its citizens can find refuge: they'll all become professionals.

In one of the most emotional sessions so far of the Copenhagen climate meeting, officials of the remote atoll nation said Wednesday they are doing everything possible to preserve their low-lying country, which faces inundation and loss of its fresh water to sea level rise.

They appealed to negotiators and world leaders at Copenhagen to reach an effective new global pact to limit carbon emissions, calling it their last hope of saving their homeland.

In Kiribati, climate change and sea level rise "are no longer a matter of speculation. They are a reality for our people," said President Anote Tong, in a videotaped address that showed footage of stands of salt-killed palm trees and waves crashing onto highways and lapping into homes.

But island officials also admitted they are making plans for an eventual "practical and rational" relocation of the atoll's 96,000 people to countries including Australia and New Zealand.

"We are proud people. We would like to relocate on merit and with dignity," said Tessie Lambourne, Kiribati's foreign secretary.

Under the plan, islanders are taking advantage of assistance programs in Australia and New Zealand to train young people as nurses and other in-demand professions. The programs allow successful graduates to remain and seek citizenship.

The hope, Lambourne said, is that the families of immigrants could eventually qualify for immigration as well.

She said she hoped similar training and migration programs would be established in other Western nations, including the United States, Canada and Japan.

"The idea is to have pockets of (Kiribati) communities around the world," she said.

Whether this ambitious plan can be actually realized or not, given the limited financial and other resources of Kiribati, is open to question, although upcoming global skills shortages and workplace shrinking will act in the island nation's favour. While the numbers involved are significantly smaller than, say, the shift of West Africans from the region's interior to the more hospitable coasts that I blogged about in June, the absolute numbers are still significant. Entire countries are vulnerable, nto only to disappearing to to first become uninhabitable.

Long-term climate change, including the increasing frequency and severity of extreme events such as heat waves, high rainfall intensity events, summer droughts, tropical cyclones, windstorms, storm surges, and El-Nino-like conditions are affecting the lives and livelihoods of people in PICs. Coupled with overexploitation of resources, increasing urbanization and population increase, the compounding effect has caused considerable and widespread damage and threatens development in the region. For the low lying atolls, the likely economic disruption could be catastrophic, even to the extent of requiring population relocation into other islands or adding numbers to the Pacific Diaspora, with the subsequent social and cultural disruption having unknown proportions. Failure to reduce vulnerability could also result in loss of opportunities to manage risks in the future when the impacts may be greater and time to consider options limited.

Today, roughly 1 million people live on coral islands worldwide, and many more millions live on low-lying real estate vulnerable to the rising waves. At risk are not just people, but unique human cultures, born and bred in watery isolation. Faced with inundation, some of these people are beginning to envision the wholesale abandonment of their nations. These islands could be rendered uninhabitable by other effects of climate change. Floods and rogue waves raise the saltwater table underlying the atolls, poisoning the staple crops of our atoll societies. Already some farmers have been forced to grow their taro in tin containers, and already some of the smaller islands in the atolls have lost their coconut palms to saltwater intrusion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If the evacuation from long substantially inhabited islands must happen then it will be a bitter moment.