Countries with rising sea levels grapple with defining their sovereignty if relocation becomes vital
Difficult decisions lie ahead for countries faced with challenges brought by climate change, rising sea levels, coastal erosion and extreme weather. Those woes and complications can appear even more daunting for small island nations — many of which have begun navigating the unfamiliar path of potential forced migration.
In the most dire analysis of these threatened islands, some experts suggest that sea level rise has placed a handful of nations in the region at risk of extinction. Such a grim prospect may prove unavoidable for some. Even so, regional organizations — such as the Pacific Islands Forum and the Asia-Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum — aim to raise the topic to prominence for affected nations not only to have resources to take action for themselves but also to solicit support.
“We believe that no country in our region can satisfactorily address the issue of forced migration by acting alone. Instead, regional cooperation is required,” according to the Centre for Policy Development’s Asia Dialogue on Force Migration. “However, in an environment often dominated by sensitivities and controversies about the appropriate responses to forced migratory movements at the national level, this has proven to be exceptionally difficult in practice.”
In September 2016, the Pacific Islands Forum released a report titled “Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific: An Integrated Approach to Address Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management.” Referred to as voluntary guidelines for the Pacific Island region, the report highlights ways the public and private sectors can work together to mitigate risks and create a more resilient region as it confronts climate change.
“National and subnational governments and administrations, the private sector, civil society organizations, communities, and regional organizations and development partners all have unique and key roles to play in addressing these challenges, individually and in partnership, to build a more resilient future for the Pacific region,” the report said.
Affected countries have begun working on ways to limit the effects of these increased weather-related disasters in Asia and the Pacific. Their challenges are intensified with the combination of sea-level rise and floods, storm surge, wind intensity, coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers, and the potential worsening of water scarcity and drought.
Both rapid- and slow-onset events can result in displacement of affected people and communities, as a result of land degradation and loss, and of serious declines in water and food security, health and educational opportunities, according to the Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific (FRDP).
“From national to community-level actions through to regional-level interventions, many initiatives have already been undertaken to strengthen local response capacity and reduce disaster risks, covering policies, plans, implementation and institutional strengthening, among others,” according to the FRDP. “Nevertheless, significant continued and additional efforts and support are needed in order to address climate change and disaster risks.”
To that end, the FRDP identified three interrelated areas of focus and called on stakeholders to work together on tackling them.
• Strengthened integrated adaptation and risk reduction to enhance resilience to climate change and disasters
“Pursuing this goal entails successfully managing risks caused by climate change and disasters in an integrated manner where possible, within social and economic development planning processes and practices, in order to reduce the accumulation of such risks, and prevent the creation of new risks or loss and damage. This goal will contribute to strengthening resilient development and achieving efficiencies in resource management.”
• Low-carbon development
“Pursuing this goal revolves mainly around reducing the carbon intensity of development processes, increasing the efficiency of end-use energy consumption, increasing the conservation of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and enhancing the resilience of energy infrastructure. This goal will contribute to having more resilient energy infrastructure in place, and to increase energy security, while decreasing net emissions of greenhouse gases.”
• Strengthened disaster preparedness, response and recovery
“Pursuing this goal includes improving the capacity of PICTs [Pacific island countries and territories] to prepare for emergencies and disasters, thereby ensuring timely and effective response and recovery in relation to both rapid- and slow-onset disasters, which may be exacerbated or caused by climate change. Disaster preparedness, response and recovery initiatives will reduce undue human losses and suffering, and minimize adverse consequences for national, provincial, local and community economic, social and environmental systems.”
Seated at the forefront of climate challenges, the Indo-Asia-Pacific accounts for more than 90 percent of the effects of tropical cyclones worldwide. Additionally, as much as one-third of the population in the Indo-Asia-Pacific live in low-lying coastal areas, according to the Centre for Policy Development.
“The security environment impacting forced migration in the Asia-Pacific is further complicated by nontraditional threats,” according to September 2016 briefing papers for the Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration. “Put simply, the region is becoming older, hotter, less equal and more porous. Certain nontraditional threats, such as political uncertainty (short of civil war), climate change, economic downturns and rising inequality, impact the likelihood of forced migration just as much as traditional security threats.”
Smaller island nations such as Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands count themselves among the most vulnerable for potential forced migrations. These atoll nations are among the lowest-lying in the world. The threat of their submerging archipelagos brings with it damaged freshwater supplies and destroyed agriculture. By many accounts, islands in the Indian Ocean, such as the Maldives, face a similar fate.
The Maldives is projected to experience sea-level rise of 50 centimeters by 2100. The highest point in the Maldives is about 2.4 meters above sea level. The country would lose 77 percent of its island area by the end of the century.
If sea level were to rise by 1 meter — and the Maldives did not pursue further coastal protection measures — it would be nearly inundated by 2085. Rising sea levels, increased beach erosion, powerful storms, higher storm surges and threats to biodiversity present major challenges to the Maldives due to climate change during the coming decades.
The Maldivian Ministry of Home Affairs Housing and Environment has identified potential measures to help the country adapt to rising seas. These include protecting groundwater, increasing rainwater harvesting and increasing the elevation of critical infrastructure.
The severity of the issue has prompted several questions about regional and national security and sovereignty. A New York Times newspaper article called out a few “serious ones” that it deemed “intellectually interesting.” Among them: What is the status of citizenship for those forced to relocate? What becomes of a country’s government? Does it retain its full status at the United Nations? Does it maintain control over fisheries and minerals, or do those resources evolve into the depths of international waters? While debate on these questions continues, suggestions on the way forward have begun to emerge.
“Retaining sovereignty, but more importantly ensuring that islanders retain the right to choose their own sovereignty pathways, might be the aspect that generates the most disagreements between migrants and hosts,” according to “Difficult Decisions: Migration from Small Island Developing States Under Climate Change,” a research article published in the April 2015 edition of the journal Earth’s Future. “Complications arise in determining the degree to which resettled islanders have the right to retain and manage their laws, justice system, language, education system and identity, whether sovereign or not. While major cultural changes need to be expected, compromise between migrants and hosts — at both community and country levels — would be necessary, including where the newly settled land was previously uninhabited.”
Establishing clearly delineated coastline boundaries now — while physical features remain above sea level to do so — could provide a legal basis for arguing sovereignty of a maritime domain should a landmass submerge. Generating maps, even at low tide, creates a more definitive line showing where a country’s exclusive economic zone had been historically.
“Every coastal state should be ensuring maritime boundary delimitation agreements have been established, and not only that they have these treaties in place but that these treaties define their boundaries in terms of geographical coordinates,” Rosemary Rayfuse, a law professor at Australia’s University of New South Wales, told The New York Times.
Many Pacific island nations already domestically define and record their coastlines at low tide, but their claims must be recorded with neighbors or some international maritime law agency to ensure those claims don’t disappear when the landmass does, Rayfuse said.
Experts suggest that nations at risk of losing land act immediately, for there isn’t a moment to waste.
As recently as September 2016, researchers from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia said that many small island nations in the Pacific are already experiencing “significant water stress” as freshwater supplies become depleted. It’s a multifaceted problem, researcher Diana Allen told Radio New Zealand.
Warmer climates have led to increased evaporation of groundwater drinking supplies. This, coupled with lack of sufficient rainfall to replenish aquifers, has led to an imbalance in the water supply that leaves too much water salinized and too little available for drinking.
“Some of the islands already have an indication that when you compare the amount of water that would be available compared to some other region of the world, 44 percent of the islands we looked at would be in a state of water stress in comparison to other areas around the world,” Allen told Radio New Zealand.
The Asia Development Bank (ADB) has called the entire Indo-Asia-Pacific a “hot spot for water insecurity.” ADB describes insecurity in drinking water as when only half of a population has access to sanitary water and facilities.
Despite the grim figures and the prospect for continued challenges, some progress has occurred, according to a September 2016 report by Eco-Business, a media company focusing on clean technology across the Indo-Asia-Pacific. ADB figures show that in 2013, 38 out of 49 economies evaluated were deemed “water insecure.” Compare that to 29 out of 48 economies evaluated in 2016, Eco-Business reported.
Still, “significant investment and leadership are required to push many cities in Asia and the Pacific on the path to urban water security and become water-sensitive cities,” according to the ADB.
Legal issues surrounding displaced people tend to create spirited debate.
“The impact that climate change will have on the future displacement of persons is one of the major nontraditional threats that will profoundly affect the region’s security,” according to the Centre for Policy Development. “Extreme weather, resource scarcity and increasing natural disasters act as stressors that can trigger mass migration of people, leading to social destabilization within countries and in neighboring countries.”
Experts say it’s important to differentiate between undocumented migrants or asylum seekers and people (or potentially nations) relocating due to climate change.
“Those migrating due to climate change are not refugees under international law, are not moving due to violent conflict and are not expected to be moving into volatile areas,” according to the Earth’s Future research article.
The ADB estimates that more than 42 million people were displaced between 2010 and 2011 alone due to sudden onset weather events.
Climate change is likely to present an additional set of challenges for the agriculture and forestry sectors, particularly in terms of managing the projected increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. The region has always been highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate variability and extreme weather, such as floods, intense rain, droughts and cyclones and these have been the cause of significant production losses to the agriculture and forestry sectors in the past. While farmers, foresters and tree growers have developed agricultural and forestry systems that help minimize climate-related risks, the magnitude of potential changes to key climatic variables projected for this century is likely to present a more formidable adaptation challenge.
The Earth’s Future report offered several possibilities to consider for displaced nations, including building entirely new islands. Engineering options could allow for constructing new islands, including floating islands anchored to the seabed or to submerged islands, creating a kind of artificial island state to inhabit.
Another research suggestion called for developing a post-migration community within a host country. This would require integration and the real risk of losing the language, identity and culture of the migrating nation.
Researchers began recognizing these types of issues nearly 30 years ago. Yet questions persist regarding abandoned islands. Questions about fishing, mineral resources and shipping rights.
“Such questions are just starting to be explored, but few answers emerge, with the lack of parallels and precedents also inhibiting analysis,” the Earth’s Future article said.
Island nations would prefer if none of the alternatives was needed. The reality, however, remains that low-lying states must explore legal options for varying climate change scenarios.
“SIDS [small island developing states] peoples are not a single group with a single view or single voice. That presents challenges and opportunities in formulating and implementing decision-making processes for migration linked to climate change, while accepting that such decision-making processes are not removed from other social, environmental and governance interactions,” the Earth’s Future article concluded. “Rather than climate change and migration being completely new threats or opportunities for SIDS, they and their nexus add to ongoing decisions which SIDS peoples face regarding the future of their countries and cultures.”