Communities on the Front Lines Facing Down the Climate Crisis
Kiribati is a low-lying atoll island in the central Pacific Ocean, located 8,000 km northeast of Australia and 5,500 km northeast of New Zealand with a population of around 100,000. With most of the nation’s islands rising less than 3 meters above sea level with widths spanning just a few hundred meters, Kiribati is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels. In anticipation of global climate change drowning a large portion of the nation’s landmass and rendering other areas uninhabitable because of soil erosion and salinization of water tables, the Kiribati government has established a complex, multi-modal response to climate change.
Starting in 2003, Kiribati launched the Kiribati Adaptation Program (KAP) to reduce the nation’s vulnerability to climate change. The program aims to improve water supply management, employ coastal management protection measures such as mangrove replanting efforts, reduce coastal erosion and, most notably, facilitate population resettlement planning to reduce personal risks.
Recognizing that even if some of the island nation’s land remains above ground agricultural prospects will become increasingly limited, the Kiribati government has looked abroad for sources of food security. In 2014 Kiribati completed the purchase of a 5,460-acre tract of farmland in Fiji for $9.3 million. Since the purchase of the land people in both Kiribati and Fiji have predicted that the government intended to relocate Kiribati residents to the land, but the government has insisted that the land is to be used only for agricultural production.
Even with the most robust adaptation measures, current trends in sea level rise dictate that at some point in the not-too-distant future, a significant portion of Kiribati’s population will need to leave the atoll nation. Recognizing that a failure to plan for a slow, methodical and dignified migration, departure would likely look more like an evacuation than a migration, the Kiribati government has implemented a long-term planned migration program to ensure I-Kiribati the right to “migrate with dignity.”
The “migration with dignity” policy is a two-pronged approach providing opportunities for citizens who want to migrate abroad now (or in the near future) and as well as those who will move over the longer term, offer educational and vocational training to ensure that I-Kiribati expatriates are able to find work in receiving countries. In the near term, Kiribati is working to forge expatriate communities and social networks in various receiving countries who will be able to support future migrants and send back remittances to support those staying behind as the country’s economy shrinks.
These ex-patriot communities will also help to preserve Kiribati’s unique history and culture within the diaspora. In an interview with The Wire, Claire Anterea, the founder of the Kiribati Climate Action Network International, expressed that I-Kiribati, young and old, are concerned about losing their traditions, noting “our culture [is] an oral culture that is shared from generation to generation. And therefore, our local knowledge is passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth. The challenge for preserving [it] will not be easy” .
Over the longer term, Kiribati is working with host countries to develop educational and vocational programs to train I-Kiribati migrants in skills that are in high demand on the global market. The Kiribati-Australia Nursing Initiative (KANI) offers migrants training in nursing, complete with Australian nursing certifications. Other programs promote labor migration in the agricultural, hospitality, seafaring industries .
Not everyone in Kiribati is excited about moving, however. The Kiribati government has been clear that ‘relocation will always be viewed as an option of last resort’ and 26% of Kiribati indicate that they are not willing to move to another country, even in the long term . Some of those more reluctant to embrace relocation include religious and traditional leaders who cite the I-Kiribati’s strong ties to their lands.
Even those who stay behind can reap some of the benefits of out-migration. Migration can alleviate pressures on the resource base and remittances can provide important sources of income for those who stay behind. For their part, those who stay behind can help the diaspora continue to maintain their history and culture and connection to their traditional homelands.
Newtok is a Yup’ik Eskimo village of around 400 residents along the Niglick River in western Alaska. Up until the late 19th century ancestors of the Newtok maintained a migratory lifestyle, moving seasonally among coastal and inland hunting and fishing camps but by the beginning of the 20th century the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Education build schools in the region and required Alaska Native children to attend them. The compulsory education system forced the Alaska Native population to abandon their traditional practices and settle in small, permanent villages .
By the early 1980s environmental conditions in the village began to deteriorate as melting permafrost accelerated erosion, pushing the Niglick River closer and closer to the village. The State of Alaska spent about $1.5 million to control erosion before 1990 but the continued thaw of the permafrost only accelerated the erosion and the river continued to creep closer and closer to the village.
By 1994, residents of the Newtok village voted to move to higher ground, but at the time there was no clear location to resettle and no resources to facilitate the move. By 2003 the village secured a new site just a few miles away on Nelson Island in a land trade with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, but the new site had no infrastructure and there was no apparent funding source for such an ambitious project. In 2006 an ad-hoc intergovernmental working group led by the Newtok Traditional Council, called the Newtok Planning Group, was formed and initiated a strategic relocation process .
As one of the first, but unfortunately certainly not the last, communities in the US to be forced to resettle because of the changing climate, the experience of the Netwok village illustrated a major gap in federal planning and emergency management laws. While millions of dollars could be quickly deployed to respond to a sudden onset disaster, current funding mechanisms simply had not contemplated a situation like the one the Newtok were experiencing. For years the Newtok cobbled together a piecemeal of funding from different federal agencies to start work on new houses, a barge landing, and other infrastructure this all fell short of the capital needed to begin relocation in earnest .
Then in March of 2018, more than twenty years after the villagers first voted to move, Congress allocated an extra $15 million to the federal Denali Commission in the federal budget to jump-start the move. While the one-time allotment falls far short of the total price tag of around $100 million needed to facilitate the entire move, it will allow the community to move forward. Relocation coordinators anticipate residents living in the new village on a full-time basis by fall of 2019 .
At first glance, $100 million, or even the $15 million allotted to jumpstart the project, seems like a staggering sum to fund the relocation of a village of 400, but in reality, that number is only a fraction of the cost of waiting for disaster to hit instead of engaging in planned migration. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina displaced more than 1 million residents, resulting in more than 986 deaths and costing $150 billion in damages and $75 billion in emergency relief . The per-capita financial cost of Hurricane Katrina was $225,000 while the per capita cost of providing the seed money to relocate the Newtok village was just $37,500 and not a single Newtok village was killed in the process.
In light of the incredibly high costs of disaster relief and the comparatively low costs of relocation, providing financial support to communities that want to move is a surprisingly cost-effective method of adapting to climate change. More importantly, in this case, planned migration allowed the Newtok village to stay intact, maintaining their cultural identity and history—something that should be considered a welcomed disruption to the US government’s 500-years-long program of erasing indigenous cultures on this continent.
The Newtok is not the only Alaska Native village exploring relocation in the face of the brutal effects of climate change. Currently, three other Alaskan communities, the Shishmaref, Kivalina, and Shaktoolik communities have made the decision to relocate. None of these three communities, however, have the type of concrete plans developed by the Netwok for their relocation, nor have they secured financing to facilitate the move .
Vietnam is the world’s fifteenth most populous country with a total population of around 95 million and also one of the countries most susceptible to rising sea levels. Research by the World Bank predicts that 10.8% of Vietnam’s population would be impacted by a 1-meter rise in sea levels and 35% of the population would be impacted by a 5-meter rise in sea levels. Notably, the majority of the impact would occur in the agriculturally and industrial important areas in the Mekong and Red River Deltas . In addition to potentially overtaking land mass, rising sea levels are also likely to force seawater into deltas, salinating water supplies used for drinking and irrigation.
While Vietnam has developed a commercial and industrial base in recent years, it is only responsible for 0.57% of global carbon emissions or just 2.2 tons per capita, making it one of the world’s smallest emitters of CO2 and one of the countries least culpable in the climate crisis .
In recent years, climate change has fueled a wave of internal migration in Vietnam. Between 2010 and 2015 13.6% of Vietnam’s population migrated internally. A large portion of this migration has involved people moving away from flooding agricultural areas. Over the past 10 years the population of the Mekong Delta, one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, has dropped by an astonishing 1 million, with 14.5% of migrants citing climate change as the dominant factor in their decision .
While the vast majority of migration decisions are individual and family decisions, the Vietnamese government has implemented an impressive framework to support planned internal migration as climate change renders areas increasingly uninhabitable. As part of the 2008 National Target Program to Respond to Climate Change, the government of Vietnam implemented a program offering substantial support for households that needing to relocate. The program offered $880-$1,100 USD per household for relocation expenses, land allotments, 12 months of food, and vocational training and credit from the Social Policy Bank. In many cases, families moving to higher ground retained ownership of their own land to continue farming until it became unviable.
Notably, the relocation aspect of the 2008 NTP and later relocation programs did not simply act to move people out of flooding lands. Relocations under the NTP were also explicitly linked to the National Target Program on New Rural Development (NTPNRD), an existing program focusing on rural development and poverty reduction, ensuring that relocation sites offer access to electricity, water, health and education services, and public roads .
Interestingly, although climate change is already leading to deteriorating conditions in parts of the country, in recent years international emigration from Vietnam has been relatively modest with only about 2.9% of the population living abroad . Vietnam’s strategy of implementing planned internal relocation programs in concert with existing programs aimed at reducing rural poverty provides an interesting model for facilitating climate-induced migration, allowing migrants to stay as close as possible to their homes while also improving their standard of living. It is not clear, however, whether this level of internal migration will remain sustainable indefinitely or if Vietnam is likely to reach a tipping point when rural resettlement areas and cities become overwhelmed with internal migrants from cities.
In fall of 2018 a caravan of migrants fleeing violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) to seek asylum in the United States brought light to an international humanitarian crisis playing out through central America. Individuals and families participating in the caravan identified a complex set of factors leading to their decision to move—ranging from endemic poverty, to plans to reunite with their families in the United States, but the dominant factor migrants cited as pushing them north was the epidemic of gang violence throughout the region.
While the reasons that individuals choose to migrate are complex and the epidemic of gang violence has undeniably played the defining role in forcing people to migrate, it is also clear that the changing climate played an important role in creating the conditions that led to the deteriorating political and economic situation in the Northern Triangle. In Honduras where 14% of the economy is reliant on agriculture, farmers faced major droughts in 2017 and 2018 and the average temperature has already increased over 1-degree Fahrenheit in the last decade. In El Salvador 21% of the population work in the country’s imperiled agricultural sector and the country’s rivers are rapidly drying up.
In the coming years, climate change is only likely to worsen conditions in the Northern Triangle. By 2050, production of the region’s key cash crop, coffee, is expected to decline by 40%. To be certain, the reasons that people are making the dangerous journey north to seek asylum in the United States are myriad and complex. But for years, the changing climate added fuel to the economic and political challenges facing the region.
Migrant caravans moving north are just one part of the story of migration as adaptation to climate change the Northern Triangle. Once in the United States, migrants often send remittances back to their families to provide for basic needs and, in some cases, invest in local development projects. Indeed, remittances account for a significant portion of GDP in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.