Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Rising seas put islands' people under siege

Majuro atoll in the Marshalls is the front line of the battle against climate change

Makeshift seawalls are ineffective against king tides in the low-lying coral atoll of Majuro in the Marshall Islands.
Makeshift seawalls are ineffective against king tides in the low-lying coral atoll of Majuro in the Marshall Islands.

Romeo Jorbon scratches a line in the dirt with his big toe.

"The last big tide came to here," the Marshall Islander says, marking a spot 10m back from the beach and behind a makeshift seawall.

The shoreline behind him is built up with piles of rubbish and tangled, rusty bird's nests of metal scrap, bulldozer tracks, tyres and car parts in a desperate attempt to keep the Pacific Ocean from spilling onto the land.

"We use anything we can," says the Majuro schoolteacher and father of eight.

His front lawn is the front line of climate change.

Jorbon, 42, recently shifted into a house in the middle of Majuro - a former Japanese and American base in the central Pacific - to get further away from the sea.

But the 28,000 residents on the Marshall Islands' largest coral atoll are never far from the creeping tideline.

The coral necklace of Majuro is 275m at its widest point, but most of the atoll is so narrow that only four or five properties fit across its breadth. A New Zealand official jokes that you could do a coast-to-coast run in 20 seconds.

When the New Zealand delegation landed in an Air Force 757 for the Pacific Islands Forum this week, one of the wings hung out over the sea from the narrow runway.

Romeo Jorbon
Romeo Jorbon

What the atoll lacks in width is not made up for in height. The highest point in Majuro is a road bridge three metres above sea level.

"We are too low," Jorbon says. "All the islands are like this. But we can't move - I don't have the money to go anywhere."

Not all residents at Majuro share Jorbon's worry. It is generally a happy township. The predominantly young population drink kava in the balmy evenings and play basketball in large open-air pavilions. There is poverty, but not hunger. Crime rates are low and while there is some alcoholism, violence is rare.

A woman known only as Naomi doesn't know what the climate change fuss is about. "It has always been like this," she laughs.

Some locals recall king tides which swept onto the islands when they were children. They believe drought and floods are an act of God and feel climate change is a political creation.

But the evidence for sea level change is strong. Studies estimate levels have risen around the Marshalls up to 7mm in the past 20 years - more than the global average.

Prime Minister John Key told reporters at the forum that it was widely accepted that not only was climate change occurring, it was possibly occurring at a faster rate than first thought.

The hesitance of some Marshallese to accept, or react to, the crisis is partly cultural.

The President of Palau, Tommy Renegesau, told leaders this week that it was not in the Pacific spirit to use strong words or make harsh demands from other countries.

Kiribati's President, Anote Tong, whose country is even more vulnerable, said he did not like "holding his hat out" for foreign aid.

His shrinking country was determined not to be a burden and had increased skills training for young people so they could secure jobs in other countries and reduce population pressure - a policy he called "migration with dignity".

Their future is uncertain. Families in the Marshalls cling so closely to their land and their lineage that when their grandparents and parents die, they bury them on their back lawn. The idea of moving was described by one minister as "repugnant".

Jorbon is conflicted. He does not believe he will be in the Marshalls at the end of his life, but he cannot imagine leaving.

As he ambles back to his home on spine of the atoll, the furthest he can be from the ocean, he tells me: "This is where God has put us."

- NZ Herald

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