“HOW DONE a nation survives being swallowed up by the sea? So went the slogan of “Anote’s Ark”, a documentary film following Anote Tong, then President of Kiribati, as he traveled the world warning that his islands were drowning. In 2014, he bought 20 square kilometers of land in Fiji, for the 120,000 or so inhabitants of Kiribati to settle there as a “last resort”.
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“Anote’s Ark” was released in 2018, two years after Mr. Tong retired. The government that succeeded his was not impressed. “It’s a drama, like a Star Wars movie,” said Teburoro Tito, Kiribati’s ambassador to the UN. “The story is very compelling, but I have to say it’s not true.” Land in Fiji is being turned into a commercial farm.
Mr. Tito is right. In research published in 2010, Paul Kench, now at Simon Fraser University in Canada, measured the size of 27 atolls over a period of several decades and found that while 14% had shrunk and a couple had disappeared, 43% remained the same size and 43% got bigger. Many ring-shaped coral reefs have been able to adapt to rising sea levels, changing their shape as the sediment erodes and moves. Tuvalu’s land surface, for example, increased by 3% between 1971 and 2014 despite a local sea level rise of 4mm per year, double the global average for this period. Mr. Kench describes Mr. Tong’s story of the sinking of the islands as “largely an emotional tale”.
Such stories have their uses. Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, low-lying archipelagos at the bottom of the South Pacific (see map), are among the first countries to face the onslaught of climate change. Stories like Mr. Tong’s help garner international attention and much-needed funding: Seven of the 15 most aid-dependent countries in the world are Pacific Islands. But there are other, more immediate effects of climate change that threaten the lives and livelihoods of the citizens of these countries. They are less striking, more difficult to explain, and, as in the changing shape and size of islands, sometimes counter-intuitive. But the result is the same: countries could soon become uninhabitable.
Start with the phenomenon of islands changing shape. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a consensus body on climate science, warns that natural adaptation of coastal ecosystems may only be temporary: faster rates of water level rise of the sea, stronger waves and a growing human population can reduce their adaptive capacity.
It’s a risk. Another, more urgent, arises from even low sea level rises. These can cause unusually high tides to briefly but completely inundate the narrow bands of lowland that make up most atolls. Such “royal tides”, as they are called, are more and more frequent. Salt water can kill crops such as bananas and papaya and seeps into groundwater, rendering them unsuitable for consumption. Desalination plants are expensive and, like all machines, can break down. “The islands are not drowning,” said Michael Walsh, Kiribati’s former economic adviser. “But, humans like plants, they might just die of thirst.”
Climate change is another factor that could make low-lying islands uninhabitable long before most of them disappear. Last year, Cyclone Harold damaged 21,000 homes in Vanuatu. Cyclone Pam in 2015 was one of the strongest to hit the South Pacific. Cyclones and tsunamis in the region are expected to become increasingly intense.
Many islanders have picked up and moved. Some 30,000 Marshallese, more than a third of the country’s population, have migrated to America, many in the past two decades. Yet few cite climate change as the reason for their move. The Marshall Islands Climate and Migration Project, a research organization, notes that the main reasons given are “education, health care, work and family ties.”
Already poor and aid dependent, Pacific island countries have been particularly affected by covid-19. Travel restrictions have decimated the tourism industry and curbed seasonal migration to Australia and New Zealand.
Pacific rulers have ideas for boosting their economies. Tuvalu makes a lot of money by licensing its internet domain .tv (along with Vanuatu it also sells passports to the rich). She now wants to set up an online banking system and offer more online services. There are also ways to keep the islands habitable: Kiribati plans to dredge its lagoons and use the sand to raise the surrounding islands higher above the sea. Tuvalu has embarked on a land reclamation project. land. But the specter of climate change makes it more difficult to mobilize investments for such programs. “I’m trying to change the minds of the many people who say, ‘We can’t invest in your country, you’re done,’” says Mr Tito from Kiribati.
The depressing long-term solution, as in Mr. Tong’s last resort, may be to move. Marshall Islands hopes to renegotiate their post-colonial “Pact of Free Association” with America, which expires in 2023, to ensure permanent residence in the United States for all Marshallese. Tuvalu does not have this option. Maina Talia, a climate activist, believes the government should accept Fiji on its offer of a home where Tuvaluans can practice the same culture rather than “being dumped somewhere in Sydney”.
Earlier this year, the Tuvalu government, which until recently insisted there would be no Plan B, established a new UN initiative. Its aim is to work with ‘like-minded countries’ to determine how and where these countries might be relocated, how they might continue to operate ex-situ and whether they might still claim large exclusive economic zones if their lands disappeared. . submarine.
Relocating a country would also raise other big questions, both for the international system and how people view the state. “How to prepare to move a nation with dignity has never been done before,” says Kamal Amakrane, a migration expert whose ideas helped spark the UN initiative. He believes countries would be able to retain all of the elements of a state, but says the world needs to start planning now. “It is happening,” warns Mr. Amakrane. “We have 10-15 years to prepare for it. ” ■
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This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “History in motion”