Writer: Mikada Green
Editor: Hafiza Binti Abdul Samath
Graphic Designer: Arwa Ayaz
As the repercussions of climate change exacerbate, we witness a common theme in many political situations: impoverished and vulnerable communities are often the most affected. Displacement or migration is one of the results of climate change, with “environmental migrants” forced to abandon their homelands due to uninhabitable conditions. Most of those experiencing these long-term consequences of climate change reside in South Asia, South East, and East Asia, as well as the Pacific Islands, also known as Small Island States (SISs). The most devastating part of this situation is that these groups emit minor carbon dioxide emissions. However, these groups are forced to adapt to the changes triggered by those countries contributing the most to air pollution. Looking further into the unequal distribution of power and resources, those living in the regions listed above have little political or social input, leaving their fate up to those who created the problem. Historically, these societies lack the necessary tools, infrastructure, and financing to alleviate climate change's significant destruction of their communities.
Throughout history, out of 86 communities that have relocated from the Pacific Island region, 37 of those relocations were related to environmental changes. Thirteen of those relocations were due to human deterioration impacts. The list of climate change events that create a need for migration is extensive and impacts almost every aspect of a person’s livelihood. Rising sea levels, droughts, cyclones, earthquakes, erosion, water salinization, rising temperatures, and crop failure are just a few difficulties that SISs experience. Some of the less extreme instances call for temporary relocation. Still, severe weather events prevent citizens of SISs from maintaining adequate living situations and getting essential resources needed to survive, such as water and food.
In a 2011 to 2012 study, the World Health Organization (WHO) studied Pacific Island countries and found that all 13 countries that were a part of the survey have reported water supply and infectious disease as their biggest concerns. In addition, in nearly all surveyed countries, food insecurity, extreme events, and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are also alarming. The WHO also observed that 92 percent of people had experienced consequences of droughts, 47 percent suffered through heat waves, and another 37 percent endured king tide flooding.
One aspect many fail to consider when discussing the impact extreme weather has on a community is health risks. Those residing in the Marshall Islands experience firsthand the dangers of climate change and human-made destruction. With droughts and temperatures rising, fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce. Heavy rainfall increases the risk of flooding, vector-borne diseases transmitted via insects, and diarrheal sickness from unclean water. People in the Marshall Islands heavily rely on rainwater and aquifer systems which, in turn, lead to the possibility of water scarcity. Much of the food consumed is grown on the islands or caught from the ocean, but with ocean acidification, reefs are dying, and fish are in short supply. This leads to the reliance on food imports which are often not as healthy and could cause non-communicable diseases (NCD), i.e., diabetes or obesity, to spike.
The Marshall Islands, specifically the islands of Bikini and Enewetak, are no stranger to human-caused environmental changes. From the mid-1940s to the late 1950s, when the United States governed the Marshall Islands, the atolls of Bikini and Enewetak were used to test nuclear weapons. The testing made nearly 20 percent of the lands in the Marshall Islands unlivable and reduced the amount of land Marshallese citizens could internally relocate to. Once the Compact of Free Association (COFA) was implemented, Marshallese people could reside in the United States without a required visa. As a result, the number of diasporic Marshallese residents in the United States increased from about 6,700 to 22,400 between 2000 and 2010. These numbers of diasporic residents will continue to grow if there is no intervention to slow the deterioration of land due to climate change. Even with little political power, the Marshall Islands Office of Environmental Planning and Policy Coordination created a 2050 Climate Strategy. This document aims to create a National Adaptation Plan to prevent further migration and preserve the land left.
As if vacating one’s home country due to climate change impact is not already hard enough, national immigration laws make the process even harder. When comparing the current climate change migration crisis with previous European drought-related migrations, it is evident that far more constraints are in place today. There are institutional constraints, but there is little information on where or how to relocate, financial difficulties, and a lack of social ties in the new area. In international treaties, there is virtually no legal jargon to protect these environmental migrants and their human rights. Politicians with the power to do so must create a plan that acknowledges, at minimum, the basic needs of these migrants who have been forced from their homes. A crucial aspect of addressing climate change is laying out a structured system to detail the necessary basic rights for environmental migrants. Food, water, health care, shelter, and education are things many take for granted when many of these migrants are deprived of these rights.
World politicians must implement international treaties and policies to ensure that Pacific Islands and atolls remain habitable. However, there has been little planning for adaptation strategies to reduce the increasing migration rates and little effort made to make migration a smooth transition. These vulnerable communities most susceptible to climate change effects have insufficient resources to achieve a system that can withstand the repercussions of human-triggered climate events. Developing adaptation plans and integrating them into national policy is only the first step. To prevent the need for climate mitigation, we must look at the bigger picture by addressing the worsening climate crisis and targeting those creating the problem in the first place. It is unjust for those not liable for this destruction to withstand the bleakest ramifications.
A Changing Climate and Its Implications for Health and Migration in the Pacific: Examples from the Marshall Islands
A dispute in the making: A critical examination of displacement, climate change, and the Pacific Islands
Migration and dignity – relocation and adaptation in the face of climate change displacement in the Pacific – a human rights perspective