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Cherished Words

Drowning nations: ‘This is how an atoll dies’

The cost of eking out a living on islands threatened by sea level rise eventually becomes too much to bear, causing families to leave and the nation to disappear. "This is how a Pacific atoll dies. This is how our islands will cease to exist”

Marshall Islands president David Kabua addresses the United Nations General Assembly last week (AP Photo by Jason DeCrow)
Marshall Islands president David Kabua addresses the United Nations General Assembly last week (AP Photo by Jason DeCrow)

| AP News | Extracts

NEW YORK - While world leaders from wealthy countries acknowledge the ‘existential threat’ of climate change, Tuvalu prime minister Kausea Natano is racing to save his tiny island nation from drowning by raising it four to five meters above sea level through land reclamation.

And while experts issue warnings about the eventual uninhabitability of the Marshall Islands, president David Kabua must reconcile the inequity of a seawall built to protect one house that is now flooding another one next door.

That is the reality of climate change: Some people get to talk about it from afar, while others must live it every day.

Natano and Kabua tried to show that reality last week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

Together they launched the ‘Rising Nations Initiative’, a global partnership aimed to preserve the sovereignty, heritage and rights of Pacific atoll island nations whose very existence has been threatened by climate change.

Natano described how rising sea levels have impacted everything from the soil that his people rely on to plant crops, to the homes, roads and power lines that get washed away.

The cost of eking out a living, he said, eventually becomes too much to bear, causing families to leave and the nation itself to disappear.

“This is how a Pacific atoll dies,” Natano said. “This is how our islands will cease to exist.”

The Rising Nations Initiative seeks a political declaration by the international community to preserve the sovereignty and rights of Pacific Island atoll countries.

It also wants to create a comprehensive program to build and finance adaptation and resilience projects to sustain local communities’ livelihoods and to establish a living repository of the culture and unique heritage of each Pacific atoll island country.

The initiative has already gained the support of the US, Germany, South Korea and Canada, which acknowledge the unique burden shouldered by Pacific Island nations.

Natano noted that Tuvalu and its Pacific Island neighbours “have done nothing to cause climate change,” with their carbon emission contribution amounting to less than .03% of the world’s total.

“This is the first time in history that the collective action of many nations will have made several sovereign countries uninhabitable,” he said.

For the president of the Marshall Islands, David Kabua, wealthy nations could be doing much more.

During his speech to the UN General Assembly last week, Kabua urged world leaders to take on sectors that rely on fossil fuels, including aviation and shipping.

He pointed to the Marshall Islands’ carbon levy proposal for international shipping that he says “will drive the transition to zero emission shipping, channelling resources from polluters to the most vulnerable.”

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has likewise encouraged going after the world’s largest polluters.

In remarks to the General Assembly he pushed richer countries to tax the profits of energy companies and redirect the funds to “countries suffering loss and damage caused by the climate crisis” and those struggling with the rising cost of living.

In the meantime, Kabua, Natano and their fellow island nation leaders will continue to grapple with their daily climate change reality — and try to continue to exist.


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Lindsay F Bond

Different ground heights and soil compositions, but no less measurably of the leveling effect of ocean impacting a coastal community, is demonstrated in photos from Happisburgh, Norfolk, United Kingdom.

Arthur Williams

Building walls to protect his tiny atolls is like pushing the proverbial uphill.

Any talk about the Marshall Islands reminds me of the Bikini Island test of hydrogen bomb that was alleged to be 7,000 times more powerful than Hiroshima.

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