By Grant Mercer
The dead refuse to stay buried on the islands of Kiribati. Usually laid to rest in a corner of their family’s swept-dirt yard, the deceased rise inch-by-inch through the sandy soil until a decomposing appendage breaks the surface. Nothing as exotic as a zombie plague is denying the dead their peace; instead, they are being pushed out of their graves by a sea rising in response to climate change. Just as the lifeless can no longer remain where they rightfully belong, the living may soon share a similar fate. Straddling the equator halfway between Australia and Hawaii, the 33 islands of Kiribati could be swallowed by the ocean, creating a nation of refugees a hundred thousand strong by the end of the century. While Kiribati may be the first country to lose its entire homeland due to climate change, others will surely follow. By the year 2050, 50 million people are projected to join the ranks of the environmental refugees. Without global political action, the world will be faced with an environmental and humanitarian crisis without precedent.
Greenhouse gases are the cause of this predicament, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as they cause the earth’s temperature to rise. While a temperature increase of a few degrees does not seem of consequence, remember that rising from 0 to 1 degree Celsius is the difference between ice and water. As the polar ice caps melt, habitable lands drown under rising seas while farmland turns into saline deserts. Unfortunately, lesser developed countries, such as Kiribati, bear the brunt of these consequences far more than highly industrialized countries, even as the more developed nations drive the increasing levels of carbon emissions. Kiribati’s plight should not be viewed in a vacuum, but as one of many reasons to return the Earth to a state of environmental well-being.
But South Pacific islands are not the only nations endangered by environmental calamities. The Sahel – the African region just south of the Sahara Desert that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea – is home to 100 million people now facing environmental peril. For centuries, about 70 percent of the Sahel’s residents have lived in rural areas, using traditions and knowledge passed down through the generations to feed their families through subsistence farming and nomadic herding. Their methods have not changed, but the world they live in has, making traditional agricultural methods ineffective. They are forced to seek a different path for their very survival.
Desertification has led the Sahara Desert to encroach 60 miles farther south into the Sahel, robbing the residents of valuable farmland. A ten-year-long drought in the Sahel culminated in famine in 2010, leaving 18 million people near starvation. Sudden rainfall broke the drought three years later, only to flood the Senegal River and its tributaries, destroying thousands of crops and homes. As the floodwater receded, drought conditions returned. This roller coaster weather has left many people living within the Sahel with two options: stay on their ancestral lands and face starvation or leave their homes behind in search of food for their families.
Choosing between maintaining their cultural ties to the land or feeding their children, residents of the Sahel are speaking with their feet. The percentage of nomads and subsistence farmers within the Sahel has dropped from 73 percent to 7 percent, as the hungry and desperate seek refuge in cities already grappling to provide jobs, health care and food for their current residents.
As African cities have grown bloated with refugees, environmental exiles have sought sanctuary outside their national borders. Looking northward across the Mediterranean, they now seek relief on a different continent – Europe. Libya’s collapse opened the door for smugglers to ship desperate migrants across the open sea in search of a better life beckoning from the European shoreline, and there has been no shortage of either smugglers or those desperate for a new home. A 2015 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) explained that “Europe is now living through a maritime refugee crisis of historic proportions.”
During the past three years, nearly a quarter of a million refugees have sailed across the Mediterranean from Libya in barely-floating, overcrowded boats. Exact numbers are difficult to discern as not all have survived the journey. In April 2015, one overloaded boat sank under the weight of its passengers, killing nearly 1,000 refugees, over half children. Of those refugees who survive, some are sold by the smugglers as sex slaves while others are killed for their organs to support the burgeoning Egyptian transplant tourism trade. Overwhelmed European governments are faced with the difficult decision of embracing these refugees, which may, in turn, encourage more Africans to risk the perilous sea journey, or to enforce a policy of not accepting illegal migrants, leaving desperate people alone to cope with a problem caused by nations half a world away.
It is projected that by the year 2100, Kiribati, along with the island nations of the Maldives, Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu will completely disappear under the rising waters of the world’s oceans. Kiribati’s current president Anote Tong, envisioning a migration with dignity, recently bought 6,000 acres of land in Fiji, laying plans for a future when his people no longer have a home. The government and military leaders of Fiji have great concerns about receiving the I-Kiribati, as Kiribati citizens are called, into their land, ensuring no welcome mats will be laid out. A former president of Zambia offered the Kiribati people land in his country, but the offer was withdrawn upon his death in 2014. No other offers of land have been forthcoming. Recently, the struggles of accepting Syrian war refugees has become regular front page news. Without policies to save nations such as Kiribati, the world must ask itself how it will handle a future dominated by waves of refugees seeking land to live on.