Relocating Pacific islanders ‘should be last resort’

Kiribati is one of the Pacific island nations vulnerable to sea-level rise and the other impacts of climate change. Copyright: Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). This image has been cropped.

Speed read

  • Pacific islanders prefer adaptation in response to sea-level rise
  • Staying on may not always be an option and adaptation can be costly
  • Sea-level rise is already forcing relocation from the Pacific islands

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[MANILA] Dwellers of low-lying Pacific islands prefer to stay put and adapt to climate change and sea-level rise than relocating to new countries though this may not always be the viable option, says a newly-released World Bank study.

“When long-term adverse impacts of climate change and sea-level rise are unavoidable, then planned relocation may indeed be necessary or unavoidable in certain cases but this is considered as a measure of last resort,” Duygu Cicek, who co-wrote the study, tell SciDev.Net.

The study examines how sea-level rise will affect the maritime and legal rights of Pacific Island nations. Brought out in time for the UN climate summit COP26, Cicek hopes that it will prove useful for those engaged in determining future policy to address the problems of small island states facing sea-level rise even as she notes that relocation may entail drastic changes to lifestyle and livelihoods and risk impoverishment, landlessness and food insecurity.

Relocation “needs to be carefully designed with meaningful consultation with affected communities, including indigenous peoples, taking into account global best practice”, Cicek says.

The study is in line with the Niue Declaration, signed by Pacific Island leaders in 2008, which recognises the people’s preference to stay in their home countries and encourages nations in the region to adapt to climate change impacts.

New Zealand’s 2017 initiative to issue an “experimental humanitarian visa” for Pacific islanders displaced by climate change was shelved six months after it was announced because the islanders preferred to stay in their own countries.

‘Adaptation with dignity’

A 2018 study reported that most atoll islands will become uninhabitable by the mid-21st century because of sea-level rise. In 2014, Kiribati bought land in Fiji, which is about 2,000 km away, in anticipation of its islands being submerged.

Indigenous cultures around the world are deeply intertwined with the land in which each people inhabit. Cultural preservation is therefore a pivotal issue for island societies facing the threat of sea-level rise,” Benjamin Habib, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at La Trobe University, Australia, tells SciDev.Net.

The Paris Agreement recognises the importance of protecting the rights of marginalised and vulnerable sectors, including indigenous peoples, children, and persons with disabilities, when addressing climate change. However, the legal definition of a refugee under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees does not cover those displaced by climate change, Habib tells SciDev.Net.

The World Bank study notes the importance of “adaptation with dignity”, which “requires not only a focus on defending sustainable livelihoods but doing so in a way which enables people to live with their human rights respected”.

Relocation is already happening in some areas in the Pacific islands. For instance, residents of the village of Tebunginako in Kiribati either moved further inland or left the remote island of Abaiang entirely because of sea-level rise. What remains of the village is an abandoned church on a sandbar.

The church at the abandoned village of Tebunginako. Image credit: AusAID (CC BY 2.0).

Adaptation measures, such as creating seawalls and land elevation are costly. Development projects supporting these measures tend to be project-based, which may lead to piecemeal interventions, says Sione Fulivai, Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific coordinator, Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme.

Fulivai says that previous COP meetings saw debates on whether or which countries should be liable or held accountable for climate-induced impacts. “The reality is that small island states go to the COP to negotiate their existence, whereas developed countries would go there to negotiate for their economy… Pacific countries are not the ones causing the issue but will go to the ends of the earth and do what needs to be done to make sure of their survival.”

Question of statehood

Sea-level rise can lead to questions on whether an affected state can retain its statehood, according to the World Bank study which provides some legal and policy tools and measures that island states can draw on to protect their territorial and maritime entitlements.

Video credit: World Bank.

“These include not only physical defences such as sea walls, land reclamation/elevation or building structures such as a lighthouse but also a broad set of policy and legal approaches, e.g., the development of a new rule of customary international law, a new convention or amendment to existing treaties,” David Freestone, who co-wrote the study, tells SciDev.Net. “In the Pacific, there has been an ongoing regional effort to fix baselines and maritime boundaries to ensure the impact of climate change and sea-level rise does not result in reduced jurisdiction.”

According to the authors, there are dispute settlement procedures that may be resorted to, including the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

“At present, the idea of an island state without inhabitable space and no population is still a hypothetical situation, but it is worth addressing as it poses a completely novel problem for international law,” Cicek says.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

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