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Mathiesen writes: "'It's the same story. Nuclear time, we were relocated. Climate change, we will be relocated. It's the same harshness affecting us,' he says."

Mangrove plantations are one of the methods used in the attempt to protect the land from the ocean in the Marshall Islands. (photo: Rémi Chauvin/Guardian UK)
Mangrove plantations are one of the methods used in the attempt to protect the land from the ocean in the Marshall Islands. (photo: Rémi Chauvin/Guardian UK)

Losing Paradise: The People Displaced by Atomic Bombs and Now Climate Change

By Karl Mathiesen, Guardian UK

15 March 15


People in the Pacific Marshall Islands and Kiribati are facing oblivion as the sea around them rises, and they are already suffering from food shortages, droughts and floods. Karl Mathiesen reports from the frontline of climate crisis

n 1946 an American commodore gathered Lirok Joash and her people together and asked them to temporarily leave their homes on Bikini Atoll. The US needed somewhere to test its atomic bombs. It would be, said the navy man, “for the good of mankind and to end all world wars”.

Eight years later US scientists detonated Castle Bravo, the massive, bungled hydrogen bomb that would gouge a crater more than half a mile wide and make Bikini uninhabitable for decades, perhaps centuries. A calculating error created a blast equivalent to detonating 15 megatonnes of TNT, the bomb was the largest ever detonated by the United States – about 1,000 times larger than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the second world war.

Joash was 20-years-old when she left Bikini. She has been forced to relocate by radiation or unsuitable living conditions five times – including a brief and disastrous return to a still radioactive Bikini in the 1970s. Now, at 89, she is the oldest of the Bikini population forced to move by the nuclear tests. Her memories of the atoll have now grown dim.

“I don’t think she’ll make it until the next return,” says Joash’s grandson Alson Kelen, a former mayor of the Bikinian council-in-exile. “I don’t think I’ll make it. I don’t think my children or my grandchildren will make it. The dream that we would return already faded away a few years ago.”

The Bikinians, most of whom will never see Bikini, live scattered across the Marshall Islands, a collection of 24 atolls in the Western Pacific. Joash, Kelen and 200 of their people now live on Ejit, a tiny low-lying islet set aside for the Bikinians near the Marshall Islands’ capital atoll Majuro.

“We’ve been kicked around for a while, for the last almost 70 years,” says Kelen. “And until now living in these tight communities here is the best we can get. And it’s so sad. It’s so sad. Because every time we look at this we feel like we’re sailors on a voyage, we’re still right in the middle of the ocean.”

And the ocean, driven by climate change, is rising.

Across the Pacific, the subtle, unremitting first impacts of the climate crisis are already strangling lives. Later this year in Paris, the world’s leaders will attempt to produce an agreement that will secure the global climate. But secure for whom?

Floods washed over Ejit three times in 2014. Kelen fears that before long, his people will be moving again.

“It’s the same story. Nuclear time, we were relocated. Climate change, we will be relocated. It’s the same harshness affecting us,” he says.

In the Marshall Islands almost everyone lives within a few hundred metres of the sea and less than three metres above it. Inundations have destroyed homes and crops. Droughts of extraordinary intensity and length have necessitated food and water drops. Fresh water grows scarcer.

People are trying to defend their land by planting mangroves, and Sisyphean sea walls are built and rebuilt. But people’s thoughts are turning from adaptation and resilience toward a climate exodus. Scientists predict that in 30 years, life here will be so uncomfortable most people will leave. A notion the Marshallese abhor. The Bikinian calamity serves as a national warning that homelands, once lost, cannot be replaced.

“If the land doesn’t exist, what happens to these people for whom the land is the most integral thing? For the answer, just look at the Bikinians,” says Jack Niedenthal, the liason officer for the Bikini Trust.

Marshallese foreign minister Tony de Brum, who has emerged as a champion of the global climate movement, says: “Displacement is not an option we relish or cherish and we will not operate on that basis. We will operate on the basis that we can in fact help to prevent this from happening.”

But politics and atmospheric physics are running away from the Marshallese. In March 2014 almost 100 homes on the capital atoll Majuro were destroyed by a combination of high tide and big swell. More than 900 people were placed in shelters. Families have since returned to live in homes half collapsed into the sea.

“I can tell you right now that all of those [inundation] events that have occurred in the Marshall Islands can be attributed to sea level rise,” says Reginald White, the director of the Marshall Islands National Weather Service. On the pancake flat atolls, three centimetres of sea level rise will cause a flood to spread inland a further 30 metres.

The higher sea level combines with seasonal high tides (known as king tides), large swells and high winds to push water on to the land. During La Niña years (part of the couple of ocean-atmosphere phenomenon that affects weather globally and includes El Niño) the seas can rise up to 30cm above normal. The last decade of predominantly La Niña conditions has offered a bleak curtain raiser for things to come.

“We are seeing more extreme events today than we used to see in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Even without La Niña we still receive inundations,” says White.

Some scientists predict climate change will cause more intense and more frequent El Niño and La Niña events – although this is less certain than sea level rise. El Niño events are typically followed by dry periods in the Marshall Islands. During 2013, after a very weak El Niño, the northern atolls were hit by a severe drought. Food and water were delivered to desperate communities. Production of coconut oil, one of the countries only exports, fell by almost a third, a loss of close to US$2.5m (£1.6m) or 1.5% of GDP.

“If there is another drought then the industry will be gone. That will really effect everything here,” says Mison Levai, the marketing manager of the national coconut oil producer Tobolar. This will not only be bad news for the 70 employees of Tobolar’s refinery in Majuro. For the 20,000 people who live on the rural coconut-growing ‘outer atolls’ the equation is simple. No coconuts, no income.

On the outer atoll of Arno, families work together every day, six days a week, collecting fallen drupes, removing the husks, skilfully shucking the flesh (called copra) and drying it in makeshift ovens. It is then shipped to Majuro to be turned into oil and exported.

Torrak Anton, a copra farmer, uses a stick to scratch the arithmetic of his poverty in the dirt of the road. After food, rent and contributions to the copra dealer and island chief, he is left with $34 a week for the seven people in his household. During times of drought the coconuts shrink and the money for clothing, housing and education disappears.

Without copra, outer islanders will be reduced to a subsistence survival, eked from the land, supplemented by fishing and likely made impossible by tidal inundations. Already 1,200-1,400 people are reported to have moved from rural atolls to district centres – exacerbating overcrowding and making flooding in the capital Majuro more damaging.

Depending on how sharply the world cuts carbon emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts the global mean sea level will rise by 26-82cm between now and 2100. The IPCC concluded in 2013 that even if the increasingly quixotic-looking “safe” limit of 2C of global warming were somehow achieved by the Paris talks, the sea would continue to wash over Kiribati and the Marshall Islands. What the rest of the world considers acceptable climate change is, quite simply, a disaster for atoll dwellers.

In spite of De Brum’s refusal to countenance a national evacuation, White says the Marshall Islands are likely to become unliveable for all but a hardy few before the midway point of this century.

“What is the exact definition of habitable? It gets to a point where the extreme events become so frequent that it becomes very uncomfortable to make a good living,” he says.

The people of Kiribati (pronounced Ki-ri-bas) are the Marshall Islands’ fellows on the low road to climate oblivion. The capital atoll Tarawa is overcrowded and underdeveloped, even compared to Majuro. Rita Kaimwata, a 27-year-old mother of two (soon to be three), lives in a typical Kiribati home of driftwood, salvaged timber and palm thatching. Her tiny block of land in the village of Temwaiku is separated from the Pacific Ocean by a thin dirt road and a hump of sand less than a metre high.

Like many Tarawans, the Kaimwata’s access to food and fresh water is tenuous. Their diet of rice and fish is supplemented by whatever vegetables they can grow. Every second day, for one hour, the government pumps treated drinking water and the family fill up a small tank. This precious water must be kept for keeping hydrated in the punishing equatorial heat.

For bathing, dishes, clothes and watering vegetables there is a well that taps the thin layer of fresh water (called a lens) a couple of metres below the ground. But last year (and again a few months ago) the sea swept over the road, through the Kaimwata’s home, across their cabbages and into the well. Now nothing grows.

Set against scientific warnings of a future of catastrophic climate change events (such as typhoon Haiyan and hurricane Sandy) the loss of a vegetable patch seems insignificant. But for Kaimwata’s children the link between food, water and rising sea levels is profound and the margin between life and death could be as fine as the ability to grow a few cabbages.

Kaimwata, like many residents (called i-Kiribati), giggles to hide distress. “I laugh because sometimes we believe that in 20 or 30 years our country will be gone forever. But it’s not funny.” Devoid of rock and substantial natural defences, this is among the most marginal of all regular human habitats.

Nearly a decade of regular inundations has caused parts of Tarawa’s already thin and polluted water lens to turn salty. Clean water is almost non-existent. Crops have died. Between 2005 and 2010, the number of malnourished multiplied eight times. In September, an outbreak of rotavirus from bad water infected 2,513 children under five years old. Seven were killed.

Kaimwata looks around at her children and her neighbours’ children: “Only the children get sick. Many children die in Kiribati when they get the diarrhoea.” More than a third of i-Kiribati are under 15.

The water situation is desperate. Water is being drawn from the freshwater lens 20% faster than rain replaces it. Bacteria from open defecation (there are few toilets), industrial and domestic chemicals and seawater contaminate all water sources – including the government supply. Only 60% of the atoll’s population receive rations of ‘clean’ government water. The other 23,000 rely solely on well water that Tarawa’s director of public health Patrick Timeon describes as “grossly unsafe”.

“The enormity of water-associated disease and death has not been fully assessed,” says Timeon, but the direct and indirect impacts are “colossal”. He begs for assistance to raise just £70,000 for two desalination plants that could provide safe water to the entire population.

Kiribati’s president Anote Tong is frank. Years of failed talks and prevarication by industrialised countries have shaken his belief in the UN process. The land, homes and futures of his people (like the Bikinians before them) have been deemed the price of doing business, the acceptable cost of delaying the end of the carbon economy. In contrast to De Brum, he is already working on encouraging his people to leave.

“If what will happen in Paris will deal with the case of the most vulnerable countries like us, then maybe we have some guarantee that we will be able to stay. But if we don’t, I’m not going to put the future of my country on the outcome and the whims and wishes of those countries to decide. We’ve got to plan ahead. The old saying wish for the best but plan for the worst,” he says.

The countries’ contrary rhetoric on climate change is partly informed by their differing migration opportunities. The Marshallese have a compact of free association with the US, meaning they can resettle as they wish. But the i-Kiribati have few avenues of emigration. Tong’s despairing statements are partly designed to goad Kiribati’s major donor countries Australia and New Zealand to open their borders to his people.

His plan for the worst, encourages young people to learn a profession and ‘migrate with dignity’. “We have to relocate people because the landmass is going to decline. That’s common sense. Simple common sense … I can say that I refuse to move, but that’s being stupid isn’t it? Because it will not be me that will be affected. It will be my grandchildren,” he says.

Even now, it is not difficult to find the suffering grandchildren of Kiribati. Between Tong’s modest parliament and Kaimwata’s home is Tarawa’s hospital. The overloaded facility desperately needs modernisation and expansion. People sleep on the floor or outside on the ground. Cats roam the wards and ants swarm around dripping taps. In a corner of the paediatrics wing, panting slowly in the heat, lies one-year-old Atanimatang Atanimatang.

He fell sick during the rotavirus outbreak in September and his little body has wrestled against the diarrhoea and fever caused by the virus for four months. He shows signs of kwashiorkor, a type of malnutrition commonly found in regions hit by famine. His mother Katewea Atanimatang watches her son’s febrile sleep. They receive government water, she says, but when it is not available they are forced to drink from the well. She looks exhausted and sad.

When I contacted one of his nurses in the days before publication, Atanimatang had recovered slightly. He may yet live long enough to go to school, attend church, marry and have children - like most other i-Kiribati and Marshallese. But if he does, it’s likely he’ll also live to see his homeland evacuated.

The elders are distraught that this loss is being committed to their young. The Reverend Eria Maerierie is an old man. He won’t live to see his country’s loss. But he has a long enough memory to know that things have changed. If the tide is high on a Sunday he now conducts services in a church surrounded by water. And he rages against the apathy behind the rising sea.

“We are suffering in this part of the world from what those people in the rich world are working with gases. And its consequences fell on us in the Pacific. They have been selfish, thinking of what they can achieve with gas. What can we do? We just live with that dying feeling in our hearts. Our voice is nothing to them.”

Will the atolls disappear?

The most widely-reported and possibly most misleading ‘effect of climate change’ in atoll nations is erosion. It’s a striking, media-friendly narrative, climate change we can see. Homes undermined by rising seas, beaches scoured back to the coral shelf and coconut trees felled by salt poisoning. But the evidence showing a clear link between the last century of sea level rise and erosion is far from conclusive.

Research on the erosion of atolls really only began in 2011. The University of Aukland’s Murray Ford has compared aerial photography from the second world war with current satellite images and the results may surprise some. Despite a small but significant sea level rise of 20cm last century, Ford found that the last half of the century saw a general (although not uniform) trend of accretion across 100 Pacific atolls. The islands are getting bigger.

“All the research that’s come out in the last few years has shown that the islands aren’t eroding away. It’s kind of counter intuitive,” says Ford. “The conventional models show that they should be eroding, but the current observations show that they aren’t.”

Rather than being the indisputable first effects of climate change, all the photos of dead palms and disappearing beaches attest to the extreme fragility of these landforms to change.

It is likely that on densely-populated Tarawa and Majuro, causeways, shoreline developments and dredging have much more influence on local erosion than sea level. Confirmation bias also plays a part in both the islanders’ perceptions and the reporting from these islands. The eye isn’t drawn so easily to the places where the sand is piling up. Any erosion is accepted as proof of the climate change narrative.

But just because the islands are growing now, doesn’t mean they won’t suddenly begin eroding when the sea reaches a certain height. At the moment though, the disappearance of land is less of a threat than the loss of habitable land, says Ford.

“The inundation risk continues to rise and it’s highly likely that they’ll be frequently inundated well before they are eroded away,” he says. your social media marketing partner
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