Fighting the Flood: Small Island Nations’ Struggle to Remain Above Water

Small island developing states (SIDS) are at the forefront of the international conversation about climate change, and for good reason. Take, for example, the Maldives, a country consisting of 26 coral atolls that has a high point of less than eight feet above sea level and the lowest average elevation in the world. Today, the country has a population of 427,000. But by 2100, it may have a population of zero. This dire situation is not unique to Maldivians. Tuvalu, an island nation in the western Pacific Ocean with a population of 10,500, could be uninhabitable by 2050, and Kiribati, another small Pacific island nation, is projected to be fully submerged by the end of the century. Thanks to the thermal expansion of ocean waters and the melting of ice in glaciers and ice sheets, the National Climate Assessment predicts that global sea levels could be 1 to 4 feet higher by the end of the century, putting low-lying island nations and their residents at serious risk. To put this figure into perspective, sea levels have risen by just eight inches since reliable measurements began in 1880.

But rising sea levels are not only a worry for those living in 2100—the issue has already had disastrous effects on SIDS. In 2016, Australian researchers found that 11 islands in the Solomon Islands, a nation in Oceania, had become fully or partially submerged. In two cases, entire villages were flooded and residents have had to relocate. In Tuvalu, rocks and debris regularly wash up on roads, and homes are often flooded.

In 2016, Australian researchers found that 11 islands in the Solomon Islands, a nation in Oceania, had become fully or partially submerged.

When flooding occurs, residents of island nations—unlike those in coastal cities who can move farther inland—often have nowhere to turn. In this century, hundreds of thousands of these residents will see their homes—and even their home countries—engulfed by the ocean. Certain states are already preparing for this scenario. In 2014, Kiribati purchased approximately 5,000 acres of land from Fiji, a nation with a higher elevation, to act as possible refuge for citizens in the event that rising sea levels push Kiribati residents out of their homes. But this solution is not sustainable. Other countries have a limited amount of available land, and many island nations do not have the money to make these large purchases. This means that in the not-so-distant future, hundreds of thousands of climate refugees may soon need to be relocated—likely to countries drastically different from their own.

A new migration stream of climate refugees would create worldwide political and humanitarian issues. In addition to being prohibitively expensive, relocation would require that residents of island nations, who are often accustomed to rural maritime lifestyles, adapt to a new life. The languages indigenous to island nations could disappear if individuals assimilate into new areas, and historical sites would be lost under the sea. In the words of former Kiribati President Anote Tong, “As you go into another community…there is bound to be a certain loss of identity.” These financial and cultural challenges make relocation a last resort; until relocation becomes absolutely necessary, island nations should do everything they can to build up their infrastructure to delay flooding and submersion.

Even for island nations not yet completely submerged, flooding creates immense economic stress, especially since many of these nations already face a variety of economic and developmental issues. Shipping costs are extremely high for SIDS, and their economies are often heavily dependent upon single industries such as fishing, agriculture, and tourism. Worse, rising tides may imperil basic resources such as fresh water. A solution like desalination—in which salt water is processed to produce fresh water—may be technologically feasible, but the process is unfeasibly expensive for many of these developing countries.

With all of the problems facing island nations, it’s important to remember that they did not bring rising sea levels upon themselves. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, island nations are responsible for less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet these countries are 3 times more susceptible to climate change-linked disasters than other nations, meaning they bear a disproportionate share of the burden. Such a problem, like many involving climate change, will require international cooperation and help from the same large states who are responsible for the damage.

The 2015 Paris Agreement focuses on limiting pollution and transitioning to green energy, but it does little to address the effects of rising sea levels. While these efforts are necessary to mitigate climate change, any action taken today to halt rising sea levels would be too little, too late. The ocean takes longer to heat up than the atmosphere, so even if we were to completely stop emitting carbon dioxide today, sea levels would continue to rise for another 1,000 years.

Future international agreements on climate change must create a mechanism for collective action to assist island nations. Even if international cooperation can’t stem the tide of rising seas, countries can play a role in alleviating island nations’ distress, whether by mandating bilateral aid agreements with SIDS or making pledges to take in a certain number of climate refugees. Especially for wealthy nations that contribute so disproportionately to climate change, the capacity to help entails a corresponding responsibility.

Dealing with sea level rise will require a unique fix, especially in the case of protecting SIDS. One proposed solution is to construct seawalls around islands. Kiribati has tried this strategy with mixed success. Initial attempts to construct seawalls using sandbags backfired, causing increased erosion. Subsequent seawalls constructed from rock proved far more effective. But there remain problems with this approach. Primarily, seawalls are expensive to construct, and their construction requires coastal engineering skills and deep knowledge of local geography, a combination that’s hard to find. According to Professor Simon Donner of the University of British Columbia, “the idea that an outside organization can just come in with money, expertise and ideas and implement something easily is naive.”

Another proposed mitigation strategy is to strengthen mangrove forests at the edge of islands. Mangroves, which grow in coastal waters, provide a natural barrier against flooding and storm surges. However, their numbers have dwindled due to development and land reclamation. Traditionally, residents of island nations have sought to protect mangrove populations because of their use in structural material, fuel, and fishing tools. But with imported goods now acting as substitutes for those products, demand for mangroves has waned, making protection and conservation less of a priority for locals. Public education by governments, NGOs, and activists could teach residents of SIDS the significance of mangrove forests in mitigating flooding to counteract their recent decline in importance.

A more out-of-the-box approach is to construct artificial islands to replace those that have been submerged. Throughout history, artificial islands have been used to make more space for population expansion, from Tenochtitlan, the precursor to Mexico City, to modern-day Holland and Hong Kong. In fact, the Maldives constructed an artificial island called Hulhumal to meet housing demands in its capital of Male, and the nation uses the artificial island of Thilafushi to store its trash. This strategy would allow island nations to repopulate on land close to their original homes, preserving their culture, way of life, and sense of nationhood. While costly, this seems to be the only way to fix the deeper issues of identity and culture that island nations will face as entire islands begin to disappear.

Keeping island nations above water will require huge contributions of time and resources from wealthy nations, and there isn’t one perfect solution. However, these are necessary investments. In the coming decades, island nations will face economic strain from constant flooding, exacerbating existing financial and development issues. By the end of the century, mass exodus may strip island nations of their language and cultural and national identity, forcing the global community to find new homes for hundreds of thousands of people. Considering the scope of these humanitarian and economic problems, inaction is unacceptable. As Tuvalese Prime Minister Enele Sosene Sopoaga put it, “Our island is sinking together with our hearts.” For island nations, there is no time to waste.