Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera

‘Nowhere to move’: Marshall Islands adapts amid climate change threat

Residents prepare for climate-related disasters as rising seas threaten to swallow their Pacific nation

This is part two of a three-part series examining the effects of climate change on the Marshall Islands and what is being done to adapt to the increasing threat it poses. Part one examined the threat of rising sea levels on the low-lying coral atoll nation.

MAJURO, Marshall Islands — The Majuro Atoll is a thin crescent of sand, sitting just above the waterline, halfway between Hawaii and Australia.

With most of Majuro less than 500 feet across, there’s only room for one street, on which shared taxis drive back and forth. On one side of the road, passengers see the calm inner lagoon, and on the other, peering through groves of palm trees and clusters of concrete homes, they can watch ocean waves crashing against the shore.

Low earthen seawalls sandwich most of Lagoon Road, but on one the stretch between the airport and downtown Majuro, a bridge is needed to allow cars to reach the capital.

On such low-lying islands, when a storm or flood hits, there’s nowhere for residents to evacuate. In the Marshall Islands, every single atoll — a ring-shaped coral reef resulting from a sunken volcano — is narrow and barely above the water.

“Most countries that are elevated have the option of a managed retreat, but not here — our front line is our last line of defense,” said Ywao Elanzo, acting director of the Majuro-based Office of Environmental Planning and Policy Coordination (OEPPC), which oversees funding for climate change adaptation projects.

Rising sea levels pose an existential threat to the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a chain of 29 atolls and several islands that stand on average barely 6 feet above sea level. And while nothing can save many of the country’s islands if the oceans continue their rise, the residents of the Marshall Islands are racing to adapt, fighting to survive as long as they can in one of the world’s most isolated places.

During one especially bad flood in the 1990s, waves came through from the open end of the lagoon and residents were washed into the ocean, said Amatlain Kabua, former Majuro mayor and former United Nations ambassador.

“There's nowhere to move,” Kabua said. 

Facing the same threats, some Pacific island nations, including Kiribati, have begun buying land on higher ground in countries such as Fiji.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had warned of an over three-feet sea-level rise by 2100, but with new insight into melting glaciers in Greenland and West Antarctica, other researchers have since upped that end-of-the-century number to six feet.

With such a rise, the oceans would almost entirely swallow the Marshall Islands.

The Pacific nation has already recorded an average sea-level rise of about 0.3 inches per year — twice the global average, likely due to the region's equatorial trade winds. Government reports expect that to continue and accelerate. 

But unlike Kiribati, the Marshall Islands government has not purchased land for its residents and has chosen to stay and fight — hoping that by galvanizing the climate-focused United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings in recent years, it can raise awareness about the effects of climate change and convince the biggest polluters to reduce the carbon emissions that cause global warming.

An improvised sea wall at the edge of Majuro Atoll pictured on April 14, 2015. It is the most vulnerable part of the atoll, and residents there have experienced increasingly frequent flooding.
Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera

The decision against resettlement is based on many factors, including the high cost of purchasing property. But many residents also said their identity and culture were tied to the land, and they could not imagine abandoning the place where generations of their families had lived.

In the short-term though, the government has to deal with the current climate-related threats — rising seas, floods and extreme and unpredictable weather events such as droughts.

When a pair of disasters hit the country in March 2013, many residents realized climate catastrophes were becoming increasingly common. A King Tide, the highest annual tide, swept over the capital Majuro while a drought simultaneously ravaged the nation’s northeast atolls.

The twin disasters scared many residents and forced them and their government to take action.

“Flat atolls take the worst beating,” Majuro resident Jerry Kramer said. “What we need to do is understand the changes so we can begin to adapt and mitigate the situation.”

The Joint National Action Plan (JNAP) was created in the wake of the 2013 events. The government program incorporated climate-change adaptation and disaster risk-management strategies — recognition that most of disasters that would hit the country would be climate-change related.

2013 “was a wake-up call,” said Jennifer DeBrum, the coordinator for JNAP.

Since then, the Marshall Islands have focused on preparing for future climate hardships, especially the increasingly unpredictable and intense floods, Kabua said.

“I worked as a first responder, and we would come with the big bulldozers to make a seawall at low tide before the waves came,” Kabua said. “We always have machinery on standby.”

The private sector often provides the bulldozers and other machines to pile up sand in advance of the rising waves.

Across the Marshall Islands, residents have also begun building private seawalls to protect their properties.

“But,” Billa Jacklick, mayor of the Jaluit Atoll, said, “if the next house doesn't have one, they're hit hard by the current — nothing stops it.” She added, however, there is no better strategy to combat rising sea levels.

“Where there used to be high land, it is now almost level to the sea,” Jacklick said, gesturing with her hands. “It's eating our land. I think some atolls will disappear in the future.”

But the government has said it’s against the building of private seawalls, explaining that such actions direct the full force of the ocean into unprotected properties. So far though, officials have failed to ban or regulate their construction.

“We are looking at long-term coastal solutions and have just started a dialogue with our coastal defense sector,” DeBrum said. “But to have a seawall around the whole island is not feasible — still, we need to find out what is.”

One project that was being carried out under Elanzo’s OEPPC aimed to improve residents’ capacity to handle such inundation events without seawalls.

“It’s an elevated causeway,” Elanzo said, referring to a project on the Ailinglaplap atoll, located about 180 miles east of Majuro, which suffers from frequent flooding and coastal erosion.

At the atoll’s halfway point, it is so severely eroded from the rising seas and floods that residents from one end have difficulty reaching the other side. Especially during King Tides, Elanzo said, the elevated causeway will help ensure that residents can access the side of the atoll where most of the public services are located.

But this is a temporary solution, a form of climate adaptation, rather than a long-term solution.

The OEPPC is also looking at the feasibility of expanding Majuro’s landmass by creating a new landfill in a shallow coastal area. Jenrok village, located on Majuro, has volunteered to host the land reclamation scheme, Elanzo said. Garbage and other waste would be used to fill a small area along the coast, testing to see if it could be a new strategy to reclaim or retain land.

Jenrok is also the location of a pilot project for an early warning system in the event of another disaster, DeBrum said. The goal of the project is to determine the best ways of disseminating information quickly ahead of extreme events. It aims to increase residents’ understanding of their vulnerability and begin a community dialogue.

“It could be as simple as a community bulletin board where residents can go and see what’s happening, what’s forecast and learn how to read that information and then inform others,” said Kino Kabua, secretary of foreign affairs, whose family is related to Amatlain Kabua.

If an extreme event is predicted, residents can use bullhorns or phone trees to spread the warning. Radios would be used instead of cellphones in the remote outer atolls that are often without phone coverage.

Truman Irujiman, a descendent of the people of Bikini Atoll, who were moved to Kili island ahead of U.S. nuclear testing, said Kili is no longer safe to live on because of increasing floods, pictured on April 14, 2015.
Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera

Following the experience of the 2013 drought, the OEPPC has also embarked on a project providing residents private rainwater catchment systems, which collect water from the roof and diverts it into large aboveground cisterns.

Nearly every home on Majuro has at least one large black cistern almost as tall as the house itself. Public cistern systems for schools and the Majuro airport were also planned, Elanzo said.

“It will improve our capacity to cope with events like droughts,” Elanzo said. “A lot of time the public [water] system is not enough.”

In addition to droughts that affect water security, inundation from beneath the atoll itself, as opposed to flooding from the coasts, threatens to salinize Majuro's freshwater aquifers, called lenses for their shape as they float on the denser saline groundwater.  

"We're doing a scientific assessment of the lenses to quantify them and map the groundwater lenses in 3D," said Riyad Mucadam, OEPPC adviser to the office of the president.

Those maps, the government hopes, will allow them to more accurately dig wells, and learn how sea level rise may affect the groundwater supply.

DeBrum said she hopes this type of project can help Marshall Islands residents become more resilient in the face of the “two scary monsters,” sea level rise and drought.

Despite efforts to adapt to the effects of climate change, it is becoming clear that some parts of the Marshall Islands have already become nearly uninhabitable, Kino Kabua said.

The minute island of Kili — located about 185 miles southeast of Majuro — was severely flooded twice earlier this year, and efforts to provide aid were thwarted by weather conditions.

In the event of disaster, chartering a flight to the country's remote outer atolls and island could cost over $10,000 and even then the plane could be turned back if runways are inundated, Kino Kabua said.

If the seas are rough, delivering emergency supplies to outer atolls by ship can also be risky, with large waves preventing landings — leaving residents to cope on their own.

“We tried to get an excavator on a ship to the island but the tides prevented the landing,” Kabua said of attempts to help Kili. 

In cases where ocean water completely sweeps over an island, as happens in Kili with increasing regularity, the agriculture that residents depend on for their livelihoods can be destroyed, according to Jack Niedenthal, trust liaison for the people of Bikini Atoll — located about 500 miles northeast of the capital. Some residents of the Bikini Atoll were moved to Kili Island ahead of the U.S.’s nuclear tests following World War II.

“When saltwater washes over an island, it loses its agriculture, mice and rats die and the flies come,” Niedenthal said. “[On Kili], there were some seawalls built earlier, but it creates a prison-like atmosphere.”

Truman Irujiman, a Bikini Atoll descendant who was born on Kili, said he built seawalls to keep the waves out of his house, but they can only help so much.

“It’s not safe anymore on Kili,” Irujiman said.

Kino Kabua echoed that, saying, “For Kili, evacuation is probably the only solution.”

The island of Kili was heavily populated until recent decades, and now about a third of the homes are empty, Niedenthal said. He added that many of Kili's residents had migrated to the U.S., which has a Compact of Free Association with the Marshall Islands, meaning residents can live and work there without visas.

The migration of Kili could be a sign of what's to come for many residents of the Marshall Islands, he added.

“I hate to see people giving up on this place,” Niedenthal said. “But for a lot of people, once I see water in my living room — I’m out!”

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