People in Marshall Islands face existential threats from climate change

"If the sea level continues to rise, everything in the Marshall Islands will be flooded"


Lina Kijiner-Kisino, wife of the mayor of Wotje, an atoll belonging to the Marshall Islands (Photo courtesy of Piya Nalihom)

MAJURO (Taiwan News) – In May 2016, the Reuters news service reported findings from Australian researchers that five small islands of the Solomon Islands had disappeared because of rising sea level and erosion; these submerged islands were, fortunately, uninhabited by human beings.

However, in other parts of the Pacific Ocean, the number of environmental refugees continues to mount due to sea level rise, surging temperatures, unusual storms, and enduring droughts.

According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), violent storm Cyclone Pam wreaked havoc in the Pacific ocean in 2015 which left 75,000 residents in Vanuatu displaced or homeless, and more than 20,000 people from the Marshall Islands have emigrated to the U.S, owing to the impacts of extreme weather conditions in their homeland.

To many residents on the Pacific islands, the impact of climate change such as sea level rise is no longer an issue talked about by environmentalists or shunned away by politicians, it is a fact strongly lived and felt. 

Lina Kijiner-Kisino, wife of the mayor of Wotje, an atoll belonging to the Marshall Islands, told the Taiwan News reporter that some people had moved inland because their houses were already in the water, particularly those built by the seashore.

Fortunately, abrupt climate change has not only demonstrated Marshallese people’s great resilience and adaptation to the changing environment, but it has also shown unity among the population.

Lina said people had been displaced as a result of sea level rise, but she had never heard that people became homeless, for if someone’s house was flooded, his or her family would take them in.

“That’s our culture, we help each other out,” added Lina. 

Having received a university education in the United States, Lina is an eloquent woman wearing a friendly smile. Yet when it comes to how her country and people have been affected by climate change due to decades of pollution caused mainly by developed and developing big nations, she cannot help but feel indignant.

“As you can see, we don’t have any big factories in the Marshall Islands, so we are not putting anything into the atmosphere that will affect climate change,” Lina said plainly. 

Lina believed that causing extreme weather conditions in the Pacific was the result of actions by developed and big developing countries and that more efforts needed to be made by them to address the environmental problems. 

During "One Island, One Product," an event intended to promote traditional food and handicraft as an approach to improve the economic conditions of Marshallese people, Lina was selling “Wut in Wotje" (rose in Wotje), accessories made by women of her city. 

"Wut in Wotje", hand-made accessories from the Marshall Islands (Teng Pei-ju ∕ Taiwan News)

Lina explained enthusiastically to the reporter that the floral accessories are made of a thin wire wrapped in coconut fronds, so they can be adjusted to whatever shapes one likes. 

Despite being proud of her products, Lina also expressed concern over the decreasing production of coconut trees, the essential material of the accessories, across the Marshall Islands. 

The persistent drought in the north and submerged lands had made coconut trees scarce in the country, said Lina.

Jimmy Jonathan, vendor from another atoll called Aur who sold hand-made ties and necklaces made of coconut and pandanus leaves, shared Lina's worry.

Jimmy Jonathan, vendor of hand-made accessories from the Marshall Islands (Photo courtesy of Piya Nalihom)

A lot of things would be gone with the disappearance of coconut and pandanus trees, said Jimmy, adding that the trees were not only the sources of food and product making for people in the Marshall Islands but also part of their culture.

Hand-made accessories from the Marshall Islands (Teng Pei-ju ∕ Taiwan News)

“If the sea level continues to rise, everything in the Marshall Islands will be flooded. All islands will be gone,” said Jimmy.

Jimmy was not joking. Constituted by dozens of atolls and thousands of islands and islets, the Marshall Islands has nothing but low-lying lands.

According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, the mean elevation of the country is merely two meters, and the highest point of the entire country is located on Maloelap Atoll, which is 14 meters high.

As for the summit of the country's capital, Majuro, it is a small concrete bridge whose elevation makes one feel like crossing a deceleration strip when sitting in a vehicle.

The impacts of climate change have been so devastating that governments of Pacific Ocean states like the Marshall Islands are desperately calling for actions and commitment from the world’s powerful countries to address the problems.

While world leaders have finally started to confront the problems and global climate talks are held year after year, local communities of these small islands, whose lives are most vulnerable but voices rarely heard, continue to combat environmental threats.

"Wut in Wotje", hand-made accessories from the Marshall Islands (Teng Pei-ju ∕ Taiwan News)

Marshallese men wear the "necktie" made of coconut and pandanus leaves (Teng Pei-ju ∕ Taiwan News)