On most tropical islands, rainfall seeps into an underground fresh water lens that floats atop a layer of salt water. For centuries, small island countries have relied upon underground aquifers for their supply of fresh water. As the rising saltwater oceans encroach onto these islands, the underground fresh water lens turns brackish.
Without fresh water in remote islands, survival is precarious. Severe water and food shortages will occur. Water-borne diseases will spread and hospitals will be overwhelmed. A study published in the journal, Science Advances, in April 2018, found that if sea levels continue to rise at present rates, most low atoll island nations will become uninhabitable by 2060 due to salt water intrusion from wave-driven over wash that compromises freshwater aquifers and destroys coastal infrastructure.
Most of these island countries, with a few notable exceptions such as Kiribati in Micronesia in the Central Pacific and a few countries in the Caribbean, have no comprehensive programs for adaptation to climate change or protecting vulnerable coastal populations. They have not developed any plans or set aside funds for an orderly resettlement of populations to higher ground or mass emigration from their island homes.
Kiribati, with a population of 110,000, is one of the few island nations that has developed a comprehensive national plan to “migrate with dignity.” It purchased land in Fiji for agriculture and future population migration. Kiribati as well as Tuvalu, a Polynesian island country of six small coral atolls with a population of 12,000, are both looking to Australia and New Zealand as migration destinations and are preparing their populations with better education and labour skills to help them settle in the new countries.
In the Caribbean, Jamaica, Barbados, St. Lucia, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda have adopted disaster risk reduction programs such as comprehensive weather data analysis technology and the preparation of maps for predicting the effects of seawater encroachment and land elevations for population movement. But these small countries have limited resources for prediction, preparedness and adaptation to sea level rise.
Most small island countries in the Pacific, Indian Ocean and Caribbean are wholly unprepared to protect their populations and provide mechanisms for adaptation to sea level rise, whether it be protecting infrastructure or planning for mass emigration. The reaction of these small island countries to emergencies caused by the Climate Crisis will be ad hoc and they won’t be able to effectively respond to the catastrophes and upheaval that threaten their land and people.
Should these island nations seek to hold the industrialized countries liable to pay the costs of economic disruption and population resettlement through the creation of new international treaties? Should they resort to lawsuits against the large oil companies to hold them responsible for the destruction of their islands, their economies and the costs of adaptation and resettlement elsewhere?
Lawsuits have been brought by the State of New York against ExxonMobil for hiding their knowledge since the 1970s about climate change and placing their shareholders at risk of holding stranded assets if fossil fuels remain in the ground. Nine US cities and counties from New York to California have filed lawsuits against large oil companies to pay the cost of environmental damage. Should small island developing states consider similar legal remedies?
The Torres Strait Islands lie off the northern coast of Queensland, Australia and are inhabited by 6,800 indigenous people. They are making a claim at the United Nations Human Rights Committee against Australia for sea level rise that is inundating their low-lying islands and threaten their total destruction. The Torres Strait islanders claim Australia has violated their fundamental human rights under the Paris Climate Agreement by failing to take adequate measures to reduce carbon emissions that cause sea level rise.
Australia is the largest exporter of coal – the dirtiest fossil fuel in the world – and coal is the dominant source of energy in the country. The Torres Strait islanders claim that under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Australia has an obligation to protect their lives, family and culture. They want Australia to pay for sea walls and embankments that could protect the islands from the onslaught of rising seas. Salt water is already destroying ancestral burial sites and turning underground fresh water brackish.
The Paris Agreement of 2015 acknowledged the relationship between human rights and the Climate Crisis including the right to life, food, water, health, housing, development and self-determination. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has acknowledged that the right to a healthy environment is fundamental for humankind and requires states to “prevent significant environmental damages within and outside their territory.”
Drastic reductions in carbon emissions must be accomplished within 13 years to keep the Earth’s atmosphere from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius, the tipping point beyond which the heating of the globe will become irreversible. Global carbon emissions are not decreasing. They are increasing worldwide at the rate of 2.5 per cent per year.
For thousands of years, people have inhabited these small island countries. They gaze out on the vast ocean that surrounds them, nurtured them and defined their unique way of life. Now, they see the ocean as a disquieting force influenced by powers beyond their control.
Brent L. Probinsky is a lawyer and environmental activist in Florida. [email protected]