Sea level rise threatens future of Pacific and Indic islands peoples

President of Kiribati says time to save his country is likely gone · Government buys 20 square kilometres of land in Fidji for agricultural projects, Kiribati islanders could eventually find themselves forced to move there · Forescasts are also pessimistic for Marshall Islands · Maldives try to protect their main islands with walls

While a conference of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change was being held in Bonn (4th to 15th June), Republic of Kiribati President Anote Tong was recalling that, according to scientific projections, the disappearance of his country under the Pacific Ocean waters seems to be unavoidable. Tong noted that, apart from Kiribati, also the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and the Maldives are facing a similar situation: those islands have been inhabited for centuries or even millennia by peoples who currently have their own, sovereign states. But all those islands rise very little above the ocean's surface, and because of current sea level rise, many of them may soon find themselves sinking. This is one of many effects triggered by climate change, mostly due to pollution from Northern countries and developping countries such as China.

Purchasing safer lands

The Kiribati government has purchased, 2,000 km away of its current territory, 20 square km of land on the island of Vanua Levu, in the Republic of Fidji. The immediate reason for this was the need for arable land; but in the medium and long run, the Kiribati government fears that the islanders (110,000 people) could see themselves forced to emigrate there if their low-lying islands disappear under the ocean. For now, an agricultural and fishing program is being run there.

Leaders of the 1,100-island Marshall archipelago could be among the first constrained to follow the example of Kiribati. The 60,000-strong Marshallese population is attentive to pessimistic forecasts from President Christopher Loeak, according to whom the disappearance of many islands will soon be a reality and, consequently, people who now inhabit them should be preparing to flee at some point.

Building walls to hold water is an option. A heavy storm that last year flooded the airport in Marshall's capital city Majuro by skipping an already built wall however showed how difficult could this solution be to implement.

What is happening in Kiribati and the Marshall Islands is also being experienced by other surrounding peoples. They are dwellers of shrinking islands in a region -the Pacific Ocean- where the annual rsea level rise stands now at 1.2 cm, according to the United Nations Environment Program. In most cases, lack of financial resources makes it impossible for them to buy other lands. Affected people are concerned. Some governments, such as New Zealand's or Fidji's, have said they are willing to accommodate those who have fled the sinking islands.

But it does not appear that the issue could have an easy solution. A New Zealand court last month denied the status of "climate refugee" to a man from Kiribati who had been living in New Zealand for years. Among their arguments, the judges said that if this case was accepted, then suddenly millions of people in similar situations could also seek asylum. And that, of course, would entail a major problem for New Zealand.

Not only in the Pacific Ocean this kind of problems are emerging. In the Indic Ocean, the Maldives (a country made up of 1,200 islands with an average altitude of 2 metres above sea level) have already built barriers seeking to protect the islands. The Maldives' capital city Male, which houses some 100,000 people, is now completely surrounded by a wall. The government, however, does not have enough money to build a wall for each island. The population could thus finally be concentrated in some protected islands, with walls being built depending on the needs.

Human diversity at risk

The populations of all those territories make up different peoples with their own languages. All those islands have undergone the colonization of Western powers (the UK in the case of Kiribati, Spain and Germany in the Marshall Islands, and Portugal and the UK in the Maldives).

The people of Kiribati speak the Gilbertese language, which is the official language there, alongside English. Gilbertese is a Micronesian language, like many others spoken in the Pacific islands. The vast majority of Gilbertese speakers live in Kiribati, although there are some speakers in other countries in the region, as a result of recent migrations.

The majority of the Marshall islanders are also of Micronesian origin. The Marshall Islands, an independent republic since 1986, have Marshallese as the territory's own language, which is related to Gilbertese. Marshallese is only spoken in those islands. A small proportion of inhabitants of American origin use English.

The Maldives, which gained independence from the UK in 1965, have a population of diverse ethnic backgrounds who speak Divehi, an Indo-Aryan language. English is used for trade, tourism, and education. Outside the Maldives, Divehi is only spoken in the neighboring island of Minicoy, which belongs to India.

The future of all those peoples and their languages could be very uncertain if they lost the territories where they developed, and where they are almost exclusively kept alive.

(Image: the city of Malé, in the Maldives / picture by Shahee Ilyas.)