Paradise Denied: Climate Change Refugees in Panama and Elsewhere Flee to Mainland
A combination of global warming and coral reef destruction is forcing communities in Panama to relocate to the mainland, abandoning their island homes. They defeated pirates, conquistadors, and overlords, but the rising sea levels caused by climate change proved too much; some 2,000 inhabitants of Carti Sugdub, members of the indigenous Kuna people, are preparing to leave their village and move inland.
Reuters quotes marine biologist Hector Guzman of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, “This is no longer about a scientist saying that climate change and the change in sea level will flood (a people) and affect them. This is happening now in the real world.”
Effects of rising ocean levels were exacerbated by the traditional coral mining practices of the Kuna people, who extract coral for landfill and other construction as well as to sell to tourists as souvenirs.
The people of Carti Sugdub may be among the first climate change refugees, but they will not be the last. A 2009 report from the International Institute for Environment and Development warns that the ancient city of Mombasa, Kenya can expect to see 17% of the city submerged within the next 20 years. Salt water is predicted to infiltrate the water supply, putting further strain on a community–current population 800,000–that has been battling invaders and welcoming travelers for 2,000 years.
Island communities in the Pacific–Fiji, Papua-New Guinea, Tuvalu and others– are likewise threatened or are already being evacuated to safer ground.
As negotiations continue around reducing manmade emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, it is more than time to also consider actions that will be needed to adapt to the inevitable effects of global warming, even if we were somehow to halt all emissions tomorrow. Public policy decisions around agriculture, population migration, and major infrastructure, such as roads, water systems, and drains, take many years to develop; plans underway now must take into account the changes that are likely to occur no matter the outcome of ongoing climate talks.
Photo: Low-lying homes in Panama and elsewhere are threatened by sea level rise.
R.J. Lerich via iStockphoto