When storms batter remote communities, flooding towns and cutting vital supplies, what becomes of the local people? For many, it’s not just their homes at threat, it’s their way of life.
Words Liz Haycroft
Illustration Anna Dunn
The UN Refugee Agency predicts that between 2009 and 2050, climate change will force anywhere from 250 million to one billion people from their homes. Some of these ‘climate refugees’ are fleeing natural disasters like severe drought or flooding, while others are escaping from slower-moving environmental shifts: coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, thinning ice, land subsidence, or even just the scarcity of arable land. On top of these environmental changes, economic and political factors have a major bearing on how these communities will survive in the long-term — if at all.
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The Guardian has dubbed Alaska ‘the frontline of global warming’, yet the impacts of environmental shifts are being felt all over the world — from the Arctic Circle, right down to tiny Pacific islands like Tuvalu and Kiribati, not to mention flood-affected communities in Kenya and Pakistan.
Alaska at Risk
In 2003, the US Army Corps of Engineers determined that 184 Alaskan villages — 86% of the state’s indigenous communities — were threatened by floods and coastal erosion, either caused directly or exacerbated by the effects of climate change. As a result, many residents must leave the homes and lands that their people have occupied for thousands of years, in search of safer locations.
While some towns shift key buildings away from the coastline, in other places, like Shishmaref in the Chukchi Sea, the 500-odd townspeople have voted to uproot the entire community to higher ground. Meanwhile the land in Newtok, a village of just 350 people, has been deemed too fragile and low-lying to support sea walls that might keep out the encroaching sea.The US Army Corps has predicted that the entire site could be underwater as soon as 2017.
“The US government estimates that a town like Kivalina, with fewer than 400 residents, could cost anything from $100 million to $400 million to relocate.”
In other cases it’s not just the land at risk, but access to hunting routes, or critical supplies and services that leaves isolated communities in peril. In the town of Unalakleet, erosion caused by the Bering Sea exposed the town’s water mains to the elements, causing the pipes to freeze solid. Although the water supply has been restored, the 688 locals must now prepare to lose the town’s airstrip — their only year-round access to the outside world.
The UN suggests relocation should be a last resort, yet for many villagers, a move is inevitable. But for the US government, relocation driven by climate change was not necessarily considered when the legislation for disaster relief was being drawn up. So the question remains — who should foot the bill for these communities to move?
Relocating a town like Kivalina, with fewer than 400 residents, is estimated by the US government to cost anywhere from $100 million to $400 million. In the Swedish Arctic, where the world’s largest iron ore mine is swallowing up the city of Kiruna, the mining company responsible has allocated more than $500 million to rebuild and recompense the 23,000 residents. The townsfolk may receive payment for the properties they lose, but they must also purchase homes in the newfangled city at a greater cost.
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Where this money will come from, combined with the time required versus the time available, not to mention the psychological toll on the residents, is proving a critical issue for the governments involved.
Kiribati: That Sinking Feeling
In Kiribati, a group of low-lying Pacific islands, President Anote Tong is preparing his 100,000 citizens for ‘migration with dignity’ by training them in transferable skills that could be used if/when they must move, as well as purchasing a swathe of land in nearby Fiji.
In May 2013, a Kiribati man decided to beat the climate refugee rush by seeking asylum in New Zealand, claiming the rising sea level left him at risk. In a landmark decision, the tribunal denied his request, citing the ‘sad reality’ that his situation was no different to that of his fellow countrymen.
‘People who move in the context of environmental change’ isn’t quite as catchy a term as ‘climate refugee’. Yet for many in the affected communities, the former suggests a desire to be self-sufficient, as opposed to the helplessness inherent in being a refugee. Groups like Many Strong Voices — which joins communities from the Arctic and small island states — provide a voice for those actually facing the effects of climate change. Co-director Ilan Kelman believes we owe these people the support they need. “Everyone wants and deserves a home, irrespective of climate change”, he says. And through their work, it’s clear that as politicians and town planners address the logistics, for local residents like student Renee Kuzuguk, maintaining a sense of community and cultural identity is paramount: “My family is the most important thing in my life. And I think everybody in Shishmaref is a family. I don’t want to lose them.”
History shows humans are always on the move, whether driven by economic and environmental factors, or, in the case of forcibly resettled nomadic peoples, direct government order. People in the Arctic, in particular, have a history of adapting to natural change. But with the loss of land combining with so many other interconnected challenges, only time tell if and how these communities will endure.