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Continuous Survival in the Marshall Islands

Last December, we took a look at the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a small country in the equatorial Pacific roughly halfway between the Philippines and Hawaii, positioned just west of the International Date Line – and on the ‘front line’ of climate change.

While there are lots of significant differences between an urban metropolis such as Toronto (population 3 million) and a community of some 53,000 people spread across five islands and 29 coral atolls, there are lessons to share.

Consider this: residents on Majuro – the island with the most residents and also the seat of government – may have to evacuate, possibly within the next 10 years, due to rising sea levels.

Backing Up A Bit

The Marshalls were occupied by the Japanese during World War II, and the area features dozens of underwater wrecks of wartime ships and aircraft.

After the war, the United States took over the administration of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, which included the Marshall Islands. Two of the more significant activities in the 1960s and ’70s involved military testing:

  • Rockets (without live bombs) were fired from California, landing in the Marshalls. US military staff were wont to boast that these missiles were so precise they could hit a 55-gallon container floating in Kwajalein Atoll’s large lagoon.
  • More famously, between 1946 and 1958 the Marshall Islands were the site of 67 atomic weapons tests, including 23 in Bikini Atoll, cumulatively producing a significant amount of radioactive fallout: the 1954 “Bravo Shot” detonation – a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb test – was, all by itself, “more than 1,000 times as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima” during World War II.[1]

In 1979, the US withdrew and local administrations formally recognized the establishment of the Republic of the Marshall Islands under its own constitution and government.

Claims relating to nuclear exposure and fallout are “ongoing” between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands, as health impacts and aftereffects linger on.

The Marshalls and Modernity

In the Marshalls, it has generally been difficult to ensure access to fresh water. When I was in the Marshalls in the 1970s and ’80s, the ‘water hours’ were one hour in late morning and one hour in late afternoon. (Still, water containers were frequently dry within the time slots.) But this has changed, mercifully, with new approaches and technologies: rainwater is collected and treated, “skim wells” supplement this supply, and – more expensively – sea water can be evaporated to remove the salt.

On another front, the Marshalls are experimenting with coconut oil as an alternative to diesel fuel for vehicles, power generators, and ships.

The Marshall Islands have also participated in One Young World, a global youth leadership summit focused on social impact.

The Islanders are busy and productive. There’s only one catch …

Reality Bites

Describing the cultural skills of the locals as “legendary,” National Geographic offered a gloomy outlook:

For thousands of years, the Marshallese have embraced their watery environment, building a culture on more than 1,200 islands scattered across 750,000 square miles of ocean.

But powerful tropical cyclones, damaged reefs and fisheries, worsening droughts, and sea-level rise threaten the coral reef atolls of this large ocean state, forcing the Marshallese to navigate a new reality.

In a moment of reckoning, Marshall Islanders face a stark choice: relocate or elevate. […] With 600 billion tons of melting ice flowing into oceans that are absorbing heat twice as fast as 18 years ago, the Marshallese will need to move fast.[2]

The islanders are well aware of the need to act expeditiously. Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine told National Geographic that the community has put its focus “on climate change mitigation” but adds that there is “a need for a greater emphasis on adaptation, including the consideration of building higher ground.”

And the next stage?

Looking back 40+ years, I see that few things have changed, except for most everything. The potential loss of Majuro island poses immediate challenges for almost 30,000 residents – and in all likelihood the difficulties are only going to increase over time. Meanwhile, the Marshall Islands residents are working to improve water and food security, climate-proof local infrastructure, and fortify their shorelines “to keep our heads above water.”

I feel certain we could all learn a lot from the Marshallese, not just in terms of their appreciation for the beauty of the region’s islands and atolls, which they are doing their best to safeguard, but also with regard to their proactive, energetic stance in tackling – mitigating and surviving – the effects of climate change.


Sources and Further Reading

1. National Geographic: “Rising Seas Give Island Nation A Stark Choice: Relocate Or Elevate,” by Jon Letman (November, 2018)

2. Iraq: Silent Death, ed. Christian P. Scherrer (Penerbit USM, 2010).

3. Wikipedia: Marshall Islands

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