As emergency teams still scramble to deliver water and food to the drought-stricken Marshall Islands, the cruel reality of climate change has hit again as record tides inundate the countries’ islands, engulfing the capital Majuro.
A combination of storm surges and high tides struck the city, breaching sea walls and flooding the airport and other major areas of the atoll nation’s major population centre.
Further ‘king tides’ are expected in the coming days.
The flooding comes following extensive drought in the north of the country in recent weeks, that has left 6,000 people surviving on less than one litre of water a day, facing food shortages as crops fail and vulnerable to drought-related diseases like diarrhoea, pink eye and flu.
On May 7 the Marshall Island’s government declared a state of disaster and government and international organisations from around the world have donated drinking water, purification and food aid to the country.
The US also declared the north of the Marshall Islands a disaster zone earlier in the month due to the severity of the drought.
As members of the US Federal Emergency Agency (FEMA) arrived in Majuro in recent days to assess the situation, Marshall Island’s Minister-in-Assistance to the President responsible for climate change, Tony de Brum greeted them with the words: “welcome to climate change.”
Home to 70,000 people, many of the Marshall Islands’ atolls sit less than a metre above sea level. Coastal erosion, rising sea levels and more frequent storm surges have left the nation, along with low lying island nations across the world, increasingly vulnerable.
Across the ocean from Majuro, on the idyllic island of Buoj – once home to the Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak – ever-encroaching oceans threaten to wash away roads, schools and airstrips.
Home to 1,700 people, the causeway linking some of the islands is disappearing, while salt water is making previously productive agricultural land useless.
The end of the island gets shorter every year. Some places we used to stand on the beach to fish are now in the water. I have a great attraction to Ailinglaplap. I can live on other islands but I was born and raised there.
Buoj is one of 52 islands in the Ailinglaplap atoll. A recent survey of the islands found this atoll to be the country’s most climate vulnerable region. de Brum warns that more needs to be done to stave off future climate disasters:
From drought to deluge, my people are suffering an escalating climate crisis. Thousands of my people in the north are thirsty and hungry, thousands of us here in the south are now drenched in seawater. As I said to the US emergency team this morning, “Welcome to Climate Change”.
We are very grateful for the help we have received. But aid will not stop floods, droughts and disease from becoming the new norm. As we have said for years, prevention is far better than cure. What we need is a new wave of climate leadership.
This September, the country will have a rare moment in the international spotlight, as it hosts the Pacific Islands Forum. The government will use the meeting to propose a ‘Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership’ in the hope of galvanising more urgent and concrete action on climate change.
Loeak said he wants to send a strong message to the world – particularly polluting nations – over the need for urgent action to slow the current trends witnessed in his country.
We will not stop telling people that climate change is a real issue for humanity. We will be the first to feel it, but it will come to them and they should realise it.
His message echoes a similar call from US President, Barack Obama who, in a landmark speech yesterday, dismissed climate change deniers and outlined steps aimed at making Washington a global leader in greenhouse gas reduction.
While Loeak welcomed Obama’s speech he warned that it did not change what was happening to low lying islands in the Pacific and said the fate of such islands raised questions over the basic human rights of those affected by climate change.
If Pacific islands are engulfed by the ocean, their populations will become refugees, he warned.
While also welcoming Obama’s speech, de Brum said, that world leaders now needed to step up their action on climate change, and turn their words into deeds.
He called on governments to join the September meeting:
President Obama’s announcement today is a welcome, if long-overdue, step in the right direction. But it is only a first step. I urge U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other climate leaders to accept our invitation to come to the Forum in Majuro. Standing just two meters above sea level, there is no more poignant place to say: ‘Enough is enough, we will beat this thing!’
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