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Marshall Islanders culture threatened: emigration as sea level rises

climate-changeLives in the balance: climate change and the Marshall Islands [excellent video]

The numerous atolls that make up the island nation are now regularly swamped due to sea level rise. But as more people flee for the US, many fear their culture will be lost to a country that has already taken so much from them, Guardian, by  and  in Majuro, Marshall Islands, and Springdale, Arkansas, 15 Sept 16

There may be music in the roar of the sea, as Byron eulogized, but the waves can also bring creeping unease. On low-lying fragments of land like the Marshall Islands, the tides are threatening to take away what they previously helped support: life.

Hilda Heine surveys the latest temporary sea wall that cleaves her property from the waves. It has been knocked down twice since February by floods and she frets about her plants that will probably face a salty demise.

Her vista would, sadly, be unremarkable in the Marshall Islands were it not for the policeman languidly guarding the corrugated metal wall – Heine is the president of the Pacific island nation. Here, no one is spared the rising seas.

“I need a better wall, one with rocks,” Heine mutters. Her presidency will probably be defined by climate change. Heine took charge in January and immediately declared a state of emergency over a drought so dire that water was rationed in the capital, Majuro. The nation also faces the existential threat of sea level rise and, with it, the potential exodus of its population.

“The numbers are increasing, of people leaving,” Heine says. “We see that almost every day. It concerns us. I think to a certain extent there are people who are thinking about the sea level rise and they’re wanting to make sure they’re on secure land.”

Better job prospects and a college education are major pulls, but climate change is now elbowing its way on to the list of considerations. A third of the Marshall Islands’ 60,000-strong population now resides in the US and some of those left behind fret that many more will follow, with the archipelago’s unique culture blemished by each departure. The Marshallese government has openly worried “about massive outmigration in recent years” – a fifth of the population left between 1999 and 2011.

As the seas rise, the pathway to the US could be closing. A compact of free association, which allows Marshallese people to live and work in the US without a visa, ends in 2023 and there are no guarantees it will be extended. Those already living in the US would be able to stay but, if the agreement isn’t extended, those living in the Marshall Islands will be treated like hopeful migrants from any other country……..

In 2014, after five-meter swells inundated Majuro for the third time in a year (historically, something that only happened once every few decades), the US Geological Survey released sobering research that shows that a mix of sea level rise and marauding waves means “many atoll islands will be flooded annually, salinizing the limited freshwater resources and thus likely forcing inhabitants to abandon their islands in decades, not centuries, as previously thought”.

The escape route is there, for now, but it has come at a cost. The option of moving to the US was born from the Marshall Islands’ misfortune of being under US administration during the cold war.

Between 1946 and 1958, the US conducted nuclear weapons testing on the islands, peppering Bikini atoll alone with 23 bombs. The largest, known as the Bravo shot, was 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb and vaporized three small islands.

While Bikini was evacuated, the wind blew radioactive detritus on to the inhabited atolls of Rongelap and Utrik. “Within hours, the atoll was covered with a fine, white, powder-like substance,” says Jeton Anjain, who led the eventual evacuation of Rongelap. “No one knew it was radioactive fallout. The children played in the snow. They ate it.”

Cancers, particularly of the thyroid, riddled many of those who came into contact with this radioactivity. But the wounds of dispossession are the ones that run deepest, 70 years on. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/15/marshall-islands-climate-change-springdale-arkansas

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September 16, 2016 - Posted by | climate change, OCEANIA

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