Climate-related migration in the South Pacific

Nui island, Tuvalu

The people and nations most vulnerable to climate change impacts and risks must not be left behind. As sea levels rise, the citizens of Tuvalu in the South Pacific prepare for the worst, while the rest of the world is called upon to implement the Paris Agreement. Two policy advisors from Bread for the World provide insights into Tuvalu’s position and the overall predicament of climate-induced migration. 

The figures are alarming: 26 million people, or the equivalent of the population of Mozambique, are pushed back into poverty every year by natural disasters, according to a World Bank study.

The situation is becoming more fragile. Climate change has become the biggest risk factor for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): both the frequency and the intensity of climate-, weather- and water-related disasters have increased significantly since the 1990s—and with them loss and damage.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, more than 24 million people were internally displaced due to sudden extreme weather events in 2016.

Climate change has caused more damage than bombs and civil wars

A study on the link between climate change and armed conflicts conducted by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (2016) found that between 1980 and 2010, almost one-fourth of armed conflict outbreaks in highly ethnically diverse countries coincided with climate related disasters.

The loss of biodiversity, security, homeland and identity as limited access to resources - all also undermine development: in conjunction with population pressure, a weak state and ethnically or religiously motivated conflicts, they can become important drivers of violent conflicts and migration.

How to protect 26 square kilometres in the open sea—the case of Tuvalu

Tuvalu belongs to the countries most vulnerable to climate change. Rising sea level especially, coupled with extremely high waves and intense storms, threaten the South Pacific island state’s existence. The country covers only 26 square kilometres of land. It lies on average only two metres above sea level and the highest point of the island atoll is only four metres above sea level.

By comparison, the most devastating cyclone in recent years, cyclone Pam in 2005, brought about six metres of high tidal waves that completely flooded the country.

Priorities in the island state are set: sandbags and artificial cement barriers protect the shores from erosion caused by tides. New land areas have lavishly been created and the village settlements are to be placed higher with the help of sand replenishments.

Are the people of Tuvalu considering relocation as an option, as the island state Kiribati is already planning?

"We will not resettle by any means," says Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Maatia Toafa. "If the state of Tuvalu perishes, we will go with it. What makes Tuvalu, Tuvalu, is the country, the people, the culture and the language—that all cannot be resettled. We are not willing to give up Tuvalu. That would be the wrong signal to give to the international community, that they do not have to make an effort anymore for Tuvalu—then they will not have to make an effort anymore for the world either."

At the 2016 UN General Assembly in New York, Prime Minister Enele S. Sopoaga called upon governments to do all they can to ensure that the Paris Climate Agreement is implemented as quickly and as ambitiously as possible. The goal must be to keep global warming below 1.5°C and to help Tuvalu adapt to climate change as best as possible. The central message is that Tuvalu must be saved and that giving up is not an option.

An international legal framework must be developed

Sopoaga has not answered the question of whether to resettle Tuvalu or not. He notes, however, that an international legal framework must be created for people who have no choice but to leave their homeland due to climate change. The international community needs to find fair solutions for these people. But migration as such would remain an individual decision and each relocation plan would have to be considered under the right to move freely alone and not intertwined with climate change considerations.

Migration programmes such as New Zealand’s Pacific Access Category (PAC) fall much too short. "Only those who are under 40, well educated and in excellent health are allowed to emigrate to New Zealand," says Bikenibeu Paeniu, who heads the UNESCAP project Pacific Climate Change and Migration (PCCM). He pleads for non-discriminatory, international law provisions to bring justice to the people most affected by climate change.

In the worst case that the inhabitants of Tuvalu lose their homeland, a relocation within the South Pacific would be most likely—supported by international law and financed by the industrialised countries that have caused climate change. Some lightly populated atolls have already fallen victim to climate change and sunken into the ocean.

Coral bleaching, dwindling fishing grounds and continual coastal erosion make it increasingly unlikely that the people of Tuvalu will stay. If the dangers of climate change are not confined, scientists say, Tuvalu will only have 50 more years until it sinks into the ocean, a fact its citizens are aware of.

Sabine Minninger and Sophia Wirsching work at Bread for the World on climate policy, migration and development. Bread for the World incorporates climate change because fighting hunger becomes increasingly important in times of climate change and increasingly scarcer resources.