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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Adapting or Migrating or Adapting to Migration

While other coral atoll nations in the Pacific grapple with similar climate change-related challenges, Kiribati and Tuvalu stand out for their independent nation status. In contrast, Tokelau is a territory of New Zealand, granting its 1,353 Tokelauan residents (2013) the freedom to migrate and reside in New Zealand. Similarly, the Marshall Islands maintain a Treaty of Free Association with the United States, allowing its 69,747 Marshallese population (2013) to migrate to the US for residency and employment under this agreement. However, apart from the Pacific Access Migrant lottery work scheme, which permits 75 young and healthy Tuvaluans and I-Kiribati each to conditionally migrate permanently to New Zealand, Tuvalu and Kiribati lack formal large-scale agreements with other nations for permanent migration. Consequently, their populations—Tuvalu's 10,698 (2013) and Kiribati’s 103,248 (2013)—have and will continue to endure the devastating impacts of climate change largely alone, while the global community debates its existence and potential threat to humanity's future.

While coral atoll dwellers keenly grasp the magnitude of the unprecedented changes occurring on our planet, much of the developed world remains largely unaware of the harrowing consequences endured by these tiny island populations. Largely left to fend for themselves by the broader global community, which often prioritizes economic growth over emission reduction, the Kiribati government has been compelled to concentrate its efforts on adaptation strategies. As one traverses along the sole paved road in the country, the tangible implementation of local adaptation measures becomes readily apparent.

On the main island, population density is skyrocketing as a result of both inward migration and the diminishing availability of land. One pivotal climate change adaptation strategy initially advocated by the Kiribati Government was the relocation of communities further inland, away from the vulnerable coastlines. However, this approach faces inherent limitations when considering the narrow strip of land available for such migration.

Inherent in the concept of adaptation is having room to adapt. Still, we don’t have room to adapt… we can only move so far before we end up on the other side of our islands (Galvin, 2007: 1).

Another consequence of the encroaching seas in the Kiribati islands is the loss of sustainable crop production and natural vegetation. Taro, a locally grown staple root crop, relies on pools of fresh water for cultivation. However, inundated land disrupts food production capabilities. Additionally, mangroves, breadfruit, coconut, and pandanus tree roots serve as natural defenses against erosion. Yet, with the increase in sea levels and more substantial tides, freshwater supplies become contaminated, and these natural defenses are uprooted. The pervasive alterations in environmental conditions are evident almost everywhere you turn in some parts of the country, highlighting the enduring impact on human lives. Having resided here a decade earlier, I can assert with certainty that this is not how it used to be.

Further adaptation efforts included the construction of locally built sea walls, which encircled private properties as a final defense against stronger tides. Initially, these barriers provided homeowners with a sense of security. However, the construction of such barriers often involved the extraction of coral from the natural reef barrier, ultimately leading to increased vulnerability. This is evident in the broken seawalls and abandoned sandbags that line the island's shores, serving as poignant reminders of the challenges faced by coastal communities in the face of rising sea levels.

The implementation of adaptation strategies may offer short-term solutions, but the prospect of massive relocation looms as a potential long-term necessity. This poses significant questions regarding the how, where, and what implications such relocations would entail for national sovereignty.

Addressing the "how" involves complex logistical considerations, such as transportation, resettlement logistics, and the allocation of resources to support relocated populations. The "where" raises issues concerning suitable relocation sites, including their environmental sustainability, accessibility, and cultural compatibility. 

Furthermore, the "what" pertains to the legal and political implications of population relocation on national sovereignty. Will relocated populations maintain citizenship ties to their home countries? Will they retain voting rights and representation? These questions underscore the need for comprehensive planning and international cooperation to address the multifaceted challenges posed by climate-induced migration.

While states are used to addressing issues of state succession, it would appear that a state's extinction, without a successor, is unprecedented… Some people end up stateless because of legislative or bureaucratic accidents but not necessarily because someone has deliberately deprived them of their national identity (Colville, 2007: 1).

As climate change continues to escalate, members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) find themselves confronting the imminent possibility of this scenario unfolding in their own territories. With adaptation strategies proving inadequate to address the scale of the challenge, national leaders are bracing themselves for worst-case scenarios.

The failure of current adaptation measures to provide sustainable solutions has heightened concerns among AOSIS members, prompting them to intensify preparations for potential mass relocations of their populations. This sobering reality underscores the urgent need for global action to mitigate climate change and support vulnerable nations in adapting to its unavoidable impacts.

We are very conscious of the fact that neighboring countries will be reluctant to add us to their existing problems at the moment. The question is, what happens to our sovereignty? I don't think anybody has the answer (KInterview.8.3, 2008).

On July 8, 2013, Fiji's Acting Prime Minister made a significant announcement regarding the purchase of a 6,000-acre estate by the nation of Kiribati. The lease agreement initially outlined that the land would be utilized solely for agricultural purposes (Deo, 2013). Known as Natoavatu Estate, the property spans 5,451 acres, dwarfing the size of Betio, Kiribati's bustling commercial hub and most densely populated area, by a factor of 15 (KAP III, 2013). While the primary intention behind this acquisition is stated to be food production, there is speculation that it may pave the way for temporary worker relocation, potentially leading to permanent human resettlement in the future.

The term "Environmental Refugee" has sparked considerable debate and discussion, with Essam El-Hinnawi offering one of the earliest and broadest definitions. According to El-Hinnawi, environmental refugees are individuals compelled to leave their traditional habitats, either temporarily or permanently, due to significant environmental disruptions that threaten their existence or significantly diminish their quality of life (1985). However, critics argue that this definition is overly broad, potentially encompassing a wide range of scenarios, from volcanic eruptions to soil degradation (Bates, 2002). 

In the context of nations like Kiribati and other atoll nations, this definition could technically afford refugee status to individuals displaced by environmental factors, including climate change. Nevertheless, it's important to note that individuals displaced solely due to environmental conditions, including the impacts of climate change, are not currently protected under the 1967 Refugee Convention Protocol. This discrepancy highlights a significant gap in international law regarding the protection of individuals displaced by environmental crises.

A refugee is outside their own country and cannot return due to a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion (UNHCR, 1967).  

In Kiribati, the profound impact of environmental changes is deeply intertwined with cultural and spiritual beliefs, anchoring individuals to their land in profound ways. For the I-Kiribati, land represents a cosmic connection to their past, present, and future. Land inheritance, rooted in kinship ties, ensures that ancestral spirits continue to watch over the land and its people. From birth to death, the land serves as the backdrop of one's life journey, with individuals born, raised, and ultimately laid to rest on family land. This spiritual connection underscores the significance of migration, as leaving one's ancestral land challenges not only physical relocation but also questions one's very sense of identity and personhood.

Given these deeply held beliefs, it's understandable why many affected by the escalating environmental challenges find solace in the biblical promise made to Noah, assuring that the Earth will never again be flooded. This symbolic refuge provides a source of hope and resilience in the face of increasingly devastating storm surges and tidal catastrophes, offering a cultural and spiritual anchor amidst the uncertainty of environmental upheaval.

What God created, God will not take away.  There will be no flood, and everyone on the islands will be safe.  He promised this to Noah and us.

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