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Atoll Habitability Study Echoes UUSC Partner Project

New research commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense examined climate change effects on the Marshall Islands’ Roi-Namur island, providing a rare glimpse into wave-driven flood modelling on atolls.

By Salote Soqo on May 17, 2018

Although the research looks at just one of the more than 1,250 islands in the Marshall Islands atoll archipelago, it further validates the threat of climate-forced displacement atoll communities are facing. Sea levels rising at a high rate and increased risks of wave-driven flooding will leave many island homes on atolls uninhabitable by mid-century, according to the research.

New climate change research, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense, echoes the challenges that many Pacific Islanders are facing. Two islands in the Solomon Islands, pictured, have completely vanished and six more are experiencing coastal erosion.

The study appears to be largely motivated by a desire to assess the security of U.S. military infrastructure in the region, though it echoes the challenges that many Pacific Islanders and communities in Alaska are already experiencing to their lives as a result of climate change impacts. In the Pacific, many villages, such as the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea and Vunidogoloa in Fiji have been forced to relocate due to flooding and ongoing erosion caused by rising sea levels. In Alaska Native Villages, such as Shishmaref and Kivalina, communities are losing their homes and lands due to melting permafrost and ongoing erosion. These impacts cause cultural, traditional and livelihood losses, which can also force communities to move.

UUSC partners with communities and organizations around the globe to support marginalized populations are at risk of forced displacement caused by slow-onset climate impacts. Pictured: Partners, community members and UUSC staff on the Cateret Islands of Papua New Guinea.

The study also provides evidence of the ongoing absence of local voices in atoll climate research, which is the focus of a UUSC partner project with the Marshall Islands Conservation Society (MICS). The UUSC-MICS partnership is allowing the Maloelap Atoll community to gather and analyze flood risk information to help build residents’ local capacity to communicate their climate story and make community development and natural resource conservation decisions that prolong the habitability of their atoll home. Core to this project is the community’s ownership of both the work and the data gathered, per the Marshall Islands national conservation area management framework known locally as Reimaanlok or ‘looking to the future.’ The UUSC-MICS project is led by Mark Stege, MICS Chief Research Advisor and Maloelap Atoll Councilman, who shared these thoughts on the new research conducted in his home country:

“If flood risk models will be produced for low-lying island communities, the main question we are asking is, ‘what is the level of local participation and ownership in generating and using these models, and thereupon the adaptation decisions including those decisions surrounding climate-forced displacement?’ The field data needed in atoll flood modelling should be based on observations not only of present and future flooding events but also of past trends (i.e. traditional ecological knowledge). Moreover, who more practical to monitor and assess an atoll community’s exposure to water security risk and flood risk – as they increase exponentially in the coming decades – than the atoll communities themselves? The considerations I am trying to elevate among atoll inhabitants include our own perceptions of individual safety and well-being as both become even more threatened, and strengthening our atoll community’s capacity to arrive at its own determination of ‘how much flood risk is too much?,’ ‘what amount of groundwater and rainwater is adequate?’ and ‘what constitutes potable water?.’ Climate research like that done on Roi-Namur certainly helps us do that.”

Although frontline communities often have the best and most appropriate solutions for climate-change challenges, they often receive the smallest share of funding and are sidelined by state and international decision makers. UUSC and our partners continue to advocate for funders to incorporate human rights-based approaches to amplify the voices, advocacy, and solutions of frontline communities facing challenges associated with climate change.

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