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.