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Marshall Islands face evacuations as sea swamps capital

Over 1,000 people have been evacuated in the Marshall Islands, as “king tides” wipe away island coastline

Source: UNOCHA

Source: UNOCHA

By Sophie Yeo

A state of emergency has been declared in the Marshall Islands following severe floods that have swamped the low lying atolls.

Almost a thousand people have been displaced in the capital of Majuro, with another 246 evacuated in the separate island of Arno, according to UN figures. Four evacuation centres have been set up in schools and churches in Majuro.

Exceptionally high tides, known locally as King tides, rose across Majuro on Monday, damaging buildings and infrastructure along the shoreline.

Tony de Brum, the minister-in-assistance to the President of the Marshall Islands, told RTCC that the frequency and intensity of the high tides are increasing, which means those who live close to the shoreline may have to consider more permanent displacement.

“I’m talking about a short term solution to a long term problem,” he said. “Perhaps we can find a way to make more permanent moves for people who are already much too close to the shoreline.”

The Government established an Emergency Operations Centre yesterday, according to the UN, and has been holding National Disaster Committee meetings with humanitarian partners, including Red Cross and the International Organisation for Migration, which are already providing aid in the country.

The Marshall Islands are comprised of 29 atolls which lie at an average of two metres above sea level, making them vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Parts of the islands lie just 30cm above water, and a sea level rise of 80 cm would inundate two-thirds of the islands, according to projections. This is a scenario which could occur by the end of the century, according to the UN’s climate science body, the IPCC.

Migration

Any relocation will be within the islands themselves, said de Brum – the idea of leaving the Marshall Islands remains “repugnant” to islanders, and could be counterproductive in diminishing the imperative to stop polluting.

Currently, people form the outer islands are flowing towards the capital of Majuro, where there are schools, hospitals and economic opportunities, as disappearing shorelines cause their own atolls to become uninhabitable. Between 2006 and 2011, migrants from other islands to Majuro numbered 1,772.

But even moving within the islands is difficult, says de Brum, meaning many residents are becoming increasingly concerned about what the future holds as the climate changes.

“Because people from the other islands will have to rebuild, relocate, and work out the arrangements for financing or for assistance or for land access from the people of Majuro, they’re becoming a lot more concerned about climate change than they’ve ever been before,” he said

Meanwhile, he said, people who already live in Majuro are worried about how they will find the space to accommodate more people as the island itself shrinks. He said: “There’s less land throughout the atoll for the accommodation of our friends and neighbours from the other islands.”

Paris treaty

While high tides are expected at this time of the year in the Marshall Islands, de Brum stresses that “this is far from normal”. On parts of the island, water from the lagoon and the ocean sides have risen so far they had met in the middle – something he hadn’t seen since 1979.

With their vulnerability to sea level rise, the Marshall Islands and their neighbouring countries are some of the most ambitious when it comes to pushing for a strong climate change agreement at the UN – a treaty that is expected to be signed off in Paris in 2015.

Last year, the Pacific Small Island States signed a “Majuro Declaration” designed to rally action on climate change – a movement which de Brum says is “gaining momentum” with small and large countries, including Japan and Mexico, signing on.

Although no single extreme weather event can be attributed to climate change, the intensity and frequency of such occurrences are expected to increase this century, and the current floods indicate the threat that they will pose to the islands.

This is something de Brum hopes will help to make their case at the international summits where the future climate treaty is discussed. “High tides speak louder than words and this is yet another example,” he says.

“It presents an opportunity for us whenever we have these king tides for us to refocus attention on what many people don’t realise: that this is a now issue, not a future issue.”

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