Marshall Islands President would rather drown than abandon country

Pacific Island leaders set to sign declaration that they will take initiative at UN climate change talks

The Marshall Islands have faced flooding and drought over the past year, linked to climate change (Pic: Flickr)


By Sophie Yeo

Marshall Islands president Christopher Loeak says he would rather drown than leave his country if it is submerged by rising sea levels.

Addressing Pacific Island leaders and delegates from around the world at the start of the 15-nation Pacific Islands Forum, he spoke of his deep attachment to his country and the need to urgently address the causes of climate change.

“My land is my home, my heritage and my identity in ways that the English language cannot capture,” he said. “This is my country and I will always stay here. If water comes, it comes.”

In June unseasonally high tides left much of the Marshall’s capital submerged. The region was already suffering from severe drought

Leaders from the region, as well as the EU, UK, New Zealand and Australia were welcomed to Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, today in a traditional ceremony of singing and dancing, as the forum officially opens for business.

The negotiations aim to address the threat of climate change, and will end with the signing of the “Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership”, which is set to call on governments, cities, business and civil society to list “specific commitments, targets and actions” to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The fifteen Pacific Leaders attending the Forum were anointed, blessed, and presented with woven straw neckpieces, in front of thousands of Marshall Islanders who had turned out for the event.

But in a stark reminder of the threat facing the islands, the ceremony was forced to start an hour late, due to unseasonably rough weather which meant that that plans for the leaders to arrive on a fleet of traditional Micronesian outrigger canoes had to be abandoned.

Climate change tour

Leaders and delegates were taken on a tour of the islands, where the effect of climate change, including damage caused by storm surges and droughts, are immediately visible.

“It is an opportunity for these leaders to see climate change face to face,” Vice President Tony De Brum said in an interview with RTCC from the Marshall Islands capital

“It is a good chance for even scientific advisors from other countries to be able to put a human face to all the figures and scientific discussion.

“This is an opportunity to put all of these things together, and I think it’s making an impression. We had for example the leaders visit some of our climate sites and witness first-hand what some of this destruction is doing to our communities.”

The impacts of climate change have been so dramatic that De Brum said that he welcomed the US emergency response team who had come to relieve flooding in June in the Marshall Islands with the words “welcome to climate change”.

And he hopes the Majuro Declaration can help boost flagging efforts to develop an effective response to climate change at the UN and at state level.

“It will be gathering of the minds in a new commitment to climate change. It’s an attempt on our part to make sure that everyone realises that this is happening now,” he said.

“It will be a firm reminder that we need to move it up a notch. We need to get it to the UN. It’s a document that will register this renewal of our determination to work hard on climate change.”

The leaders intend to present the Majuro Declaration to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during this month’s General Assembly Leaders’ Week as a “Pacific gift”, as he attempts to mobilize world leaders into working towards and ambitious climate change agreement in 2015.

Ban said in a statement to the Pacific Islands that he looks forward to their active participation in the 2014 Climate Change Summit in New York, thanking them for the leadership and commitment they have shown on the issue.

“While climate change affects us all, your region is among the most vulnerable,” he said.

“As we work towards a legally binding agreement, the international community will count on your continued leadership.  I thank you for your eloquent moral voice for action on this vital challenge for humanity.”

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