Climate change and migration in the Pacific Islands

by Sandra Ivanov. Sandra Ivanov is from New Zealand with a postgraduate education in Peace and Conflict Studies. She is currently an editor of the blog “Conflict and Security”, and primarily works in the non-government sector. You can find her through Linkedin or follow her updates on Twitter.

It is no longer a question of addressing if climate change is affecting the world we are living in, but it is focusing on, what is going on, and how we are to alleviate the unfolding impacts around us. One of the area’s most at risk from environmental degradation is small island states, such as those in the Pacific. Some of these islands will face gradual changes in land, adverse disasters, and some are at risk of totally disappearing. How people are to adapt to these changes will be a matter of global security and examining the choice of migration should be considered.

Climate change is of a concern in Tuvalu since the average height of the atolls is less than 2 metres above sea level. Tuvalu could be one of the first nations to experience the effects of sea level rise. Not only could parts of the island be flooded but the rising saltwater table could also destroy deep rooted food crops.

Climate change is of a concern in Tuvalu since the average height of the atolls is less than 2 metres above sea level. Tuvalu could be one of the first nations to experience the effects of sea level rise. Not only could parts of the island be flooded but the rising saltwater table could also destroy deep rooted food crops.

The link between climate change and migration
The migration of populations due to climate-driven effects is not new – history shows that people have crossed borders and lands due to droughts, cooling, and food scarcity. However, what makes this period of history different is that climate change is being generated by humans with the emissions of greenhouse gasses causing environmental pressures. Predictions are underway to calculate the number of people that will migrate in response to climate change effects, and they vary widely from tens of millions, to 250 million people by 2050. Climate change is affecting sea levels as well as making natural disasters more severe – these are contributing factors to why people decide to migrate.

Of course, what is important to remember is that climate change alone cannot cause populations to move around – there are important social and economic factors to also understand. Changes can be sudden-onset, such as disasters, but slow-onset environmental degradation has social changes working alongside them at a fast rate, and as a result climate change is just one push factor to consider. Once environmental changes affect living and working environments, the option to migrate becomes a possible reality. Factors which contribute to these decisions include: physical barriers, mortality rates, availability of natural resources impacting livelihoods, employment opportunities and present institutional constraints, and the effects on social networks. In any case, migration is only one option, adaptation is another. What needs to be considered is not only if a population will migrate or not – but the understanding of what a population deems to be the risks associated with climate change, and how they weigh up the pros and cons of deciding whether to stay or leave.

The significance of the Pacific
The Pacific region is one of the world’s most disaster-prone areas due to the small size of islands, their remoteness, and fragile biodiversity. Many islands have low elevation of land, and are exposed to changing ocean weather patterns, making the Pacific region most likely to feel the effects of climate change before other areas. It is, unfortunately, one of the front running regions which deals with climate change effects, already experiencing displacement and utilising migration as a solution. Over the last two decades, the number of casualties caused by weather-related disasters in the Pacific region has risen by over 21% and will only continue to grow. Exposed to a number of risks, the impact of a disaster can affect the whole economic situation of a country, as well as transforming the physical environment itself, making development a long and arduous process. The countries in the Pacific are significant to consider because some are facing economic losses from a single disaster event that would exceed their annual GDP. There are also many areas in the region which are poor and at a higher risk of climate-related effects with little or no means of protection or risk mitigation.

People walk through debris resulting from days of heavy rain in the Solomon Islands, which caused flash flooding and the Mataniko River in Honiara to burst its banks, April 4, 2014 (Photo: Tony Bransby).

People walk through debris resulting from days of heavy rain in the Solomon Islands, which caused flash flooding and the Mataniko River in Honiara to burst its banks, April 4, 2014 (Photo: Tony Bransby).

Issues facing the Pacific
Water: The Pacific Islands are facing a temperature increase between 2–4 degrees Celsius, where water resources may not be able to meet human demand during times of low rainfall. A component of this temperature increase is the rapid rise in sea levels, which will place pressure on coastlines, risk salt water intrusion into aquifers, change the shorelines, and impact rising water tables. Many nations in the Pacific base their economic activities on coasts which could destroy many industries. Migration of people from outer islands to capitals has increased as a result, but an increase of populations in the low-lying coastal areas has also been noted. Coupled with economic factors and land-ownership problems, people in places such as the Nuku’alofa coast in Tonga must resort to living in unsafe places. In Kiribati, a nation which consists of 33 atolls and reef islands, is at high risk of rising sea levels. Its sources of fresh water are being threatened by aquifers becoming contaminated. In South Tarawa of Kiribati, calls to improve water supply systems have not been fulfilled, influencing people’s decisions to migrate. The continuing sea level rise is also affecting the atoll of Kiritimati and its population to consider migrating inward until they are eventually forced to abandon the island completely.

Extreme weather: Climate change will have an effect on intensifying natural disasters such as tropical cyclones, storm surges, floods, and droughts. Although there is no current evidence that the number of cyclones will increase due to changes in climate, they will however intensify by at least 10-20%. From the changes in sea levels, and at times combined with cyclones, storm-surge heights will increase which will affect low-lying islands disproportionately. Coastal areas are predicted to experience more frequent flooding, and a projection between 1990s and 2080s has stated that “the number of people facing high flood risk from sea-level rise in these regions would be 200 times higher than in the case of no climate change”. Tropical Cyclone Ita, the latest to hit the Solomon Islands, caused unprecedented flash flooding which damaged vital infrastructure, displaced thousands, and killed over twenty people.

Agriculture: Rural areas in nations in the Pacific depend on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods. Both increased periods of drought, and flooding will affect income generating activities and diets for communities. The fishing industry is also under threat from climate change effects. A decline in coral reef, problems of over-fishing, increase of cost of fishing, and the difficulties of developing freshwater systems, will damage annual economic gains in the Pacific. In Palau, the sea level rise is making soil for crops more saline, making it harder for food to grow, as well as an increase in temperature having detrimental effects on fish species. In Fiji, flooding has been affecting coastal communities and low-lying farms, impacting on their cash crops.

Migration or adaptation?
So with some of the issues raised above, migrating domestically or internationally has been seen as a solution to the problems. However, rushing to try move and relocate populations should not be the first consideration. After all, creating migration policies undermines an attempt to create adaptation mechanisms which will allow people to continue to live their lives in their home countries. Adaptation means that ecological and social systems are given a chance to respond to their current situation in order to avoid, or adjust to climate impacts. The ability to adapt to these effects will depend on financial resources, education and information sharing capacities, improved health care, social resources, infrastructure, and technological capacities.

An extensive study conducted in Funafuti in Tuvalu, for example, found that the strong value for local identity and culture was a reason why even if climate change was altering the physical surroundings and economic opportunities, an effort to adapt to the changes would be preferred, rather than choosing to migrate. Migration was seen as the last resort, demonstrating a loss of identity if that option was needed.

Although migration may be a last resort for many populations, it should not always be looked at negatively. Migration can also be a strategy for adaptation. Migrant remittances for example, can contribute to diversify income for households which primarily rely on diminishing resources. The return of migrants is also another positive aspect for adaptation in terms of transferring new skills, helping with goods and services, and sharing knowledge of climate change risks, and responses to wider communities. Migration also diversifies social networks which can help build resilience and capacity when disasters strike.

What next?

  • On an international level, the movement of people and populations as an impact of climate change needs to be officially recognised in revisions of documents such as the Kyoto Protocol and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
  • Active efforts to reduce carbon emissions: small island states in the Pacific produce a small amount of greenhouse gasses, and both developing and developed nations need to curb emissions. Developed countries should especially contribute to finances and technological developments to allow for strategies to mitigate climate effects in island states.
  • A disparity between levels of government is prevalent in the Pacific Islands – strengthening coordination and cooperation between national and local governments would be beneficial to share knowledge and integrate disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation techniques.
  • Disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation knowledge and techniques should be mainstreamed in key sectors of society such as agriculture, energy, and transportation.
  • Accessible information: climate-related information should be delivered in a way in which can be used by decision-makers, as well as the public. It is important that the information shared and communicated is displayed in the local context in order for greater success of disaster risk reduction techniques to be implemented.
  • Indigenous knowledge should be utilised. Local communities have the best information concerning their own environment, the histories of climatic patterns, knowledge of adaptation techniques passed down from previous generations, and the specific weather-related issues which impact their livelihoods.
This entry was posted in Climate Change, English, Sandra Ivanov, Security Policy.

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