Concern mounts in Marshall Islands as high tides swamp capital

Majuro counts cost of latest flooding as 30 ‘Pacific Warriors’ set off for Australia in canoes to highlight concerns

Homes were damaged as high tides swamped the Marshall Islands on 9 October

Homes were damaged as high tides swamped the Marshall Islands on 9 October

By Sophie Yeo

Marshall Islanders have spoken of their growing fears after high tides have swamped some of the country’s major islands, flooding the airport and damaging homes.

The tiny islands, which sit just two metres above sea level, are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

In March 2013, king tides caused the government to declare a state of emergency, as 940 people were evacuated from their homes.

In an interview with RTCC Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, the Marshallese poet who addressed the United Nations climate summit last month, said the level of flooding was unexpectedly high for this time of year.

“It was just a high tide. It shouldn’t have created that much flooding. But just a small high tide is enough to create flooding now, because of sea level rise and a number of other factors,” she said.

“What’s happening now is we’re lying in wait until the next disaster happens. And we know it’s going to be worse.”

Jetnil-Kijiner stunned heads of state at the UN when she recited a poem at the General Assembly, written orginally for her seven-month old daughter.

“We deserve to do more than just survive – we deserve to thrive,” she said. “Dear matafele peinam, you are eyes heavy with drowsy weight so just close those eyes, baby and sleep in peace because we won’t let you down you’ll see.”

The UN’s science panel recently reported that up to 15% of small islands could be wiped out if sea levels rise by just one metre.

This is not a prospect for some distant future—a report by the UN Environment Programme released in June said that around some Pacific islands, the ocean is rising four times faster than the global average. In the western Pacific, the ocean is rising by up to 12mm a year, it said.

The flooding is a symptom of these higher waters, as storm surges and tides encroach further onto the islands.

Also speaking to RTCC, the country’s education minister Hilda Heine said that the constant flooding was having a long term detrimental effect on children’s education.

Schools are shut down due to lack of drinking water as salt permeates the supply, while classrooms are used for shelter.

“During the last wave in Majuro, some of our schools were closed down in some cases for more than a week, and we used the classrooms as homes to take care of the families that had their house damaged,” she said.

The next round of international talks on limiting global warming to below 2C start in Bonn next week. Countries hope to have the outline of an agreement ready for a high-level meeting in Lima, Peru, in December.

Last week Marshallese foreign minister Tony De Brum tweeted the latest pictures from the country’s coastline, saying they illustrated “what it means to be living with climate change”.

The Marshall Islands, alongside other small island states, have called on governments to increase their ambition on tackling climate change, tightening the agreed target to 1.5C, instead of 2C.

They fear they could be forced off their islands if climate change gets much worse.

The president of one small island nation, Kiribati, has already purchased land in Fiji, which could be used to house his people if they are forced to migrate.

Under a business-as-usual scenario, UN scientists have predicted that the world could be around 5C hotter by the end of the century, which means governments will have to take sharp action to reduce their emissions quickly if the small island states are going to survive.

A group of ‘Pacific Warriors’ have this week decided to take action themselves.

Thirty men and women from 13 Pacific islands have set sail towards Australia in traditional canoes that they made themselves.

On Friday, they will paddle into the harbour of Newcastle, the world’s biggest port, to stop coal exports for a day. The port ships around 560,000 tonnes of coal every day, and if it were a country would be the 9th highest emitter.

The islanders, which are part of the green group, will then travel across Australia to tell the story of their sinking homelands.

Milañ Loeak, one of the Marshallese ‘Warriors’, said: “Stopping one day of coal exports alone won’t keep our homes above water, but it marks the rise of the Pacific Climate Warriors, and the beginning of our defence of the Pacific Islands.”

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