Disappearing Islands: What is Happening in the South Pacific

By Julia Mendes Queiroz

The climate crisis has created numerous environmental emergencies in all corners of the globe. Perhaps none are more urgent than the situation unfolding in the islands of the South Pacific, where three territories have disappeared under rising tides in just one year. As temperatures climb higher and shores grow thinner, the 2.3 million inhabitants of the Pacific Islands are having their livelihoods and physical safety threatened by droughts, coral reef bleaching, flooding and storms. Those who live on archipelagos like Maldives are at  an 80% risk of losing their countries entirely within the next 50 years.

The rising sea levels threatening to sink islands are a result of two main processes of global environmental change. First, melting polar ice caps and glaciers are adding more liters of water into the ocean. Second, the ocean is expanding as water gets warmer, due to a process called thermal expansion – higher temperatures make water molecules move faster, increasing the volume of the body of water. This process has rapidly accelerated in the past few decades: tides are now growing at a rate of 3.6 millimeters per year, up from 1.4 millimeters in 1993 levels. Low-lying atolls such as Tuvalu and Kiribati are highly susceptible to these changes – and often, they do not have the resources to mitigate the consequences. 

In island nations where the danger of disappearance is not as immediate, climate change complicates life immensely. Frequent floods contaminate groundwater resources with sea water, kill vital crops like papaya and lessen the supply of drinking water. Though people are not at risk of drowning, they risk death from dehydration. Additionally, the increased occurrence of natural disasters, namely cyclones, is making certain islands completely uninhabitable; residents have no time to rebuild in between the chaotic onslaught of catastrophe.

In light of such a grim prognosis, it can be hard to imagine that there are successful solutions to protect the present and future of South Pacific Islanders. One of the strategies in which local governments have invested heavily is migration – the Kiribatian government, for instance, has created structured programs (Migration with Dignity and Pacific Access Ballot) that allow Kirabatians to find remunerative employment in nearby islands, namely Fiji. At the same time, they have also purchased potential agricultural land in Fiji to protect their food supply. However, this is not a perfect solution.  Citizens are understandably apprehensive about leaving their homes, families and jobs behind. Many people thusare calling for the implementation of strategies that would guard their coastlines and prevent further land loss.

‘Hard-engineering’ solutions could be the key to shielding the Pacific Islands from further damage. These projects would create physical strongholds to weaken the effect of the ocean and prevent flooding. Land reclamation and coastal fortification are two of the most effective options for this situation, as they offer the possibility of recuperating lost land and stopping the disappearance of more square mileage. However, these measures are expensive, simply unaffordable for these islands’ governments. Countries like India and New Zealand have pledged to support the Pacific Islands, but more cooperation will be required if these plans are to actually succeed. Unfortunately, this issue has only recently been receiving a commensurate level of international attention. Time is running out for the Pacific Islands, and the world doesn’t have long left before climate change makes them uninhabitable. 

Julia Queiroz is a freshman majoring in International Studies and Economics at Johns Hopkins University. She is from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and is part of the editorial team of the Hopkins Podcast on Foreign Affairs. 

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