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Friday’s dramatic announcement from the Obama administration—that carbon dioxide and five other gases pose a significant human health risk—shows that the American government is finally getting concerned about global climate change. Legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and further U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations, are likely to follow in the near future, despite the protests of corporate America.

The small island nations of the world, and particularly the tropical coral atolls, may or may not survive, depending on the speed with which the world’s seas continue to rise. The fate of the Ifaluk Islanders, and the people of numerous other low-lying islands, hangs in the balance on decisions made in world capitals.

Coincidentally, the Micronesian Seminar, a non-profit group known as MicSem, posted to its website last week a report on the effects of rising sea levels on the low-lying atolls such as Ifaluk in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). “High water in the Low Atolls,” by Francis X. Hezel, SJ, number 76 in the series “Micronesian Counselor,” is a carefully reasoned analysis of the effects of rising ocean levels in the FSM.

High ocean waters were a particular problem during the period of November 2007 through March 2008, when exceptionally high tides flooded the islands. Scientists attributed the problem, in part, to the closeness between the earth, moon and sun during that period and the spring tides that occur twice each month when those three bodies are in alignment. When those conditions repeated a year later, at the end of 2008, a significant storm system caused even higher tides, with their attendant wave and salt water damage.

Some politicians in the island nations, while urging world leaders to do more to stop global seas from rising, are also preparing their people for the very real possibility that they may have to abandon their lands and move elsewhere to survive. But at the present time, islanders are trying to cope with the damage caused by droughts, salt water flooding, and wave surges.

A major concern is the danger to agricultural crops. The MicSem report describes the damage from storm surges and waves in late 2007 to low-lying areas on various islands in the FSM. On some of the more mountainous islands, damage was confined to low-lying coastal regions, but on the coral atolls, the entire landscape has suffered.

Late in 2008, the outer islands of Yap state, including Ifaluk, reported extensive damage from waves and storm surges. The waves uprooted coconut trees along the shores, destroyed seawalls, eroded coastal areas, washed away private and public buildings, and swept debris and garbage inland. Probably the most severe damage has come from salt water intrusion into the taro plantings of the islanders. The report indicates that the taro crop on Ifaluk was virtually destroyed by the storms this year.

Taro is not the most highly preferred vegetable food in the FSM. Breadfruits are. But since breadfruit only ripens a couple times per year, it is only available for six or seven months out of twelve. Taro is the fall-back crop for the rest of the year. Often referred to as the potato of the Pacific, taro is mostly grown in pits in low, swampy ground. It requires fresh water around its roots, so salt water intrusion and storm surges tend to kill the plants, which take several years to replant and grow. The residents of islands such as Ifaluk, left with nearly 100 percent loss of their plantings, may have to wait about five years, free of storm surges, for their taro crops to come back again.

Building salt-water resistant containers for the taro patches with concrete and other building materials, such as some islanders have done, or growing the crops in raised beds, may not work on many of the more remote atolls. The construction materials are heavy and expensive. On some of the islands, residents continue to plant taro in their traditional pits. But the low-lying pits are especially subject to salt water intrusion from below. It is not clear if the people could afford to change, or if there will even be enough fresh rainwater to flush the saltwater out of the plantations. Rainfall has been diminishing in recent years and drought conditions have been developing in the islands.

Other problems also face the islanders on the small atolls. Transportation services provided by inter-island ships have become less reliable as costs of repairs and fuels escalate. The remote islands are now more isolated than they have been for many decades. Governments, faced with fiscal problems, are having trouble meeting educational and health commitments to their distant, constituent populations.

But the author of the report says there is no evidence—yet—to suggest that very many residents of the atolls are giving up and moving away to larger population centers. The outer atolls of Yap State in the FSM, which include Ifaluk, lost a total of only 500 people in the 11 year period from 1989 to 2000, and the atolls in other states of the FSM gained population during the same period. The people of the outer atolls, evidently, are not about to give up, unless they are forced to evacuate.

Francis Hezel urges island leaders to address the immediate issues that face the people, the most severe of which is the danger to taro cultivation. There are no quick fixes, but measures can and should be taken to protect the major food source of the islanders. “Unless we are willing to simply write off our outer islands, we must all be engaged in active planning on short and long-term strategies for the islands,” he writes. “This is essential if we hope to preserve the viability of life in the atolls that are so dependent on the crop that is being threatened.”