22. May, 2018

Marshall islanders and their battle for survival

The Marshall Islands are a chain of volcanic islands and coral atolls in the central Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and the Philippines. It consists of 29 atolls, together containing around 1200 smaller island spread over an area of the size of Mexico. The people of the Marshall Islands are of Micronesian origin, which is traced to a combination of populations that emigrated from Southeast Asia in the remote past. First Islanders probably settled around 1000 BC by Mayo/Polynesians. Later it was visited by Spanish navigators, German traders and American whalers. The islands were governed by Japan from WWW1 to the end of WWW2. After almost four decades under US administration as the easternmost part of the UN Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, the Marshall Islands attained independence in 1986 under a Compact of Free Association. Current president  Hilda Heine is much concerned with the future of the Marshall Islanders and the dangers of rising sea levels.

Such a vast archipel of atolls and smaller islands is almost impossible to describe comprehensively, so I shall here focus  on two major environmental issues: rising sea levels and the aftereffects of nuclear testing (extracted from a number of sources and articles). Starting with a brief description of some of the better-known settlements.

Majuro Atoll, the capital, has a population of nearly 25,000.  Supermarkets and roadside family stores provide a wide variety of products and services. Majuro, home to the majority of the Marshallese population, is a town of 19,000 on a 30-mile ribbon of land that’s never more than 2,000 feet wide. In almost every corner of Majuro, you can hear or see the ocean or the lagoon. Its commercial importance is seen in the lagoon, where tuna ships and cold-storage freighters drop their anchors. Here the rising sea levels and storms have also taken their toll. Human graves and tombs washed into the sea, crumbling sea walls, and residents who continue to live with the ocean lapping at their door.

Rongelap Atoll is a coral atoll of 61 islands with a total land area is 8 square miles (21 km2). It encloses a lagoon with an area of 1,000 square miles (2,600 km2). It is historically notable for its close proximity to US hydrogen bomb tests in 1954 and was particularly hit by fallout from the Castle Bravo test. Twenty people remain from the more than 300 who lived there prior to the test.  Most inhabitants were removed by US Navy to the Atol Kwajalein, where the US had located their command center for nuclear tests (see below). Three years later when Rongelap was declared safe they returned home.  In the years after the tests, many islanders suffered from thyroid gland cancer, miscarriages, and mutated fetuses. Only in 1958, the remaining inhabitants moved to Majuro.

Runit dome, 1000km Nw of Majuro. Is a  deep crater  with a  concrete dome op top  called the ‘tomb’ by the Islanders,  containing the  radioactive debris of 67 nuclear tests, still leaking  through underwater channels 

Kwajalein Atoll is leased to the US military and is the target point for intercontinental ballistic (non-nuclear) missile testing. Since 2000, Kwajalein has become one of five preferred target location for Pegasus missiles. Entry to this area containing 97 separate islands is heavily restricted and virtually closed to non-military visitors. 1/3 of the income of Marshal islands comes from leasing the atoll to the US  ballistic missile project and employment offered to islanders.  Kwajalein functioned as refuge island for Rongelap not so far from Bikini  Atoll. This occurred several days after the nuclear bombing on March 1, 1954. 84 islanders were then evacuated to  Kwajalein after being stripped naked on the beaches and tested with Geiger counters.  Many islanders infected themselves by picking up white foam dropping on the beaches looking like washing powder. Coconuts and other fruits were infested with radioactive isotopes. Compensation claims continue as a result of US nuclear testing on some of the islands between 1947 and 1952.

The threat of rising sea levels and storms On the climate top in Bonn chairman Fiji warned that through rising sea levels the lower islands of Maldives and Marshal island areas were in acute danger to become permanently immersed and uninhabited in the coming 30 years. Occasional storms  and floods are part of life on a coral atoll, but since 2008 they’ve occurred with alarming frequency. As sea levels rise around the islands, bigger waves will flood farther inland than ever before. If enough of these waves hit in succession, flooded saltwater will intrude the islands' freshwater supplies. According to new studies of USGS (The US Geological Society), salt water is now penetrating drinking water resources.  The low-lying atoll nation is in a state of emergency, experiencing a drought that could see fresh water run out for capital Majuro in three months. It is also vulnerable to rising sea levels, with “king tides” regularly flooding homes.

The Marshall Islands have an average height of just 2m above sea level. That is much higher than in  Holland, the country where I live that lies below sea level and where the Dutch already started building dikes in the 17th century. The Marshall Islands are deprived of these technological facilities,  a reason for many inhabitants to emigrate to the USA were already  20.000  seem to have found jobs in the chicken farming industry. Islanders still have the right to emigrate to the USA and many inhabitants now take single fare trips from Honolulu to the US.

Underwater world  In the northwest, Bikini Atoll’s largely undisturbed waters, used as a ship graveyard after World War II, are now a popular wreck dive site.  Other sites, in particular  Majuro atoll, have been recommended for scuba diving. Near Majuro atoll the coral reef at Kwajalein Pass seems to teem with marine life and steep drop-offs. Scuba diving or snorkeling is what most of the mere 5,000 tourists a year that visit the Marshall Islands do. Most want to see the vast variety of fish, some are in it for wreck diving. The largest wreck and the only diveable aircraft carrier in the world, the USS Saratoga, is found on the bottom of the Bikini Atoll lagoon. The lagoon within the atoll is said to contain abundant marine life because no fishing is done here.

In 2011, the Marshallese government established a 772,000-square mile shark sanctuary in the islands, about four times the size of the state of California.  According to officials it is the largest shark sanctuary in the world  that encompasses the entire nation.  Regulations include a complete prohibition on the commercial fishing of sharks as well as the sale of any sharks or shark products. Its zero retention stipulation requires that any shark caught accidentally by fishing vessels must be set free.

Go before it is too late. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that global sea levels will rise between 26 and 98 centimeters (10 and 38 inches) by the year 2100, which some scientists consider an underestimation.  Either way, it’s conceivable that the entire population of the Marshall Islands—some 80,000 people whose language, and traditions are tied to these atolls—may soon be forced to leave their home. Scuba divers could help these islands, their inhabitants and culture to survive, by providing some financial support to build fortifications against the rising sea.  Some say that the best way to experience and enjoy the beauty of this atoll empire is to travel by boat to one of the 1,200 isolated outer islands away from the urban centers of Majuro, Kwajalein, and Ebeye. Residents of these islands still live mostly off the land, fishing and harvesting bananas, papaya, coconut, taro, and breadfruit. Life on the outer islands is relaxed, and most have no phone, internet or tourist facilities.


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