Hundreds of people who had to flee their houses earlier this week as flood waters tore through Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, are now returning home to pick up the soggy pieces.
On Monday, nearly 1,000 people in Majuro and another 246 on the island of Arno, were forced to evacuate by epic king tides that inundated the low-lying communities. Many parts of Majuro Atoll are just 30cm above sea level and the islands as a whole are on average just 2 meters above sea level.
While no deaths or serious injuries have been reported, a state of emergency has been declared and at least 70 homes have been severely damaged.
Disease is also a concern as the floodwater poured through a landfill and disturbed parts of a cemetery.
The Marshall Islands are a string of more than 1,000 low-lying islands and coral atolls in the North Pacific Ocean that are home to more than 70,000 people. The highest point, anywhere on the islands is 10 meters above sea level.
Last June, high tides, combined with up to 8 foot storm surge, left much of Majuro under two feet of water. The seawall that protects the Majuro airport was breached and the runway along with many coastal roads were flooded. Even the President’s house was badly damaged by water.
Senator Tony de Brum, the Minister Assisting the President, told the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) that while king tides aren’t new in the Marshall Islands, the level of destruction caused this week was not normal.
“This is far, far from being a normal situation,” he said. “I put that down to climate change… these things are far more intense than before and leave more destruction behind than they used to.”
This week’s floods are being called the worst in decades.
King tides occur periodically when the sun and moon align during perigee — the point at which the moon’s orbit passes closest to Earth. Sea level rise is exacerbating just how high these king tides turn out to be. And unfortunately sea level is rising faster in the Central-West Pacific than anywhere else in the world.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that sea levels will rise between 28 and 98 cm by the end of the century. If the higher estimate proves right, about two-thirds of the Marshall Islands will be underwater by 2100.
In his comments to ABC, Mr. de Brum also called on Australian political leaders to do more to help the Pacific deal with climate change.
“When the king tides come, and the salt inundates, it doesn’t go away,” he said. “The salt remains in the soil and in the groundwater. If the people of Australia understood a little better and were able to see the kind of effect that climate change is having on the small island countries I am sure they will have something to say to their leadership.”
The Marshall Islands have spearheaded efforts to forge international action on climate change. In September, the Pacific Islands Forum — which includes the Marshall Islands, Australia, New Zealand, and 14 other nations — issued the Majuro Declaration, calling for increased measures to curb climate-altering emissions. The Marshall Islands also committed itself to setting an example for the rest of the world by converting schools and hospitals to solar energy. Through funding from the World Bank, the country is exploring the option of contracting an ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) plant.
In April, the Marshall Islands will host a meeting of the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action, an organization of countries pressing for an international climate agreement that formed after the disastrously ineffective 2009 summit in Copenhagen.
Ultimately, however, migration may be the only option for many islanders. Already there has been mass migration within the country, as people from the outer atolls stream into Majuro. While Majuro is far from being high ground, it does offer people, no longer able to live off the land in areas where salt water has crept into wells and agricultural lands, alternative ways to make a living.
This internal migration, nearly 2,000 people between 2006 and 2011, may have contributed to the level of destruction seen during this week’s king tide. Radio New Zealand International reports that as more and more people have moved to the city, an increasing number of homes have been erected on ever-more marginal land near the water’s edge.
Longer term, the struggle of the Marshall Islands may come much closer to home. Hawaii expects to see massive migration in the years to come. That’s because the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau have an agreement with the United States known as the Compact of Free Association that allows island residents to travel to and live in America. In exchange, the United States retains control over access to the waters around the islands.