Dec 22, 2017

Voyage to learn about Migration and Climate Change – Sailing to Ailuk Atoll, Marshall Islands

For the past weeks, I have joined the Okeanos Marshall Islands on their trips to Outer Islands supporting the local communities. My first sail in the Pacific was to Ailuk Atoll. To reach the island took us two days over a rough and windy ocean. Although I had basically no experience in sailing, the captain and crew made me feel at home on the canoe, even when the waves were high.

At night time we were rewarded with patches of stars in between the clouds and our arrival was met with a warm welcome accompanied by chants, coconuts and Ukulele music.

Kira Vinke and Iva Nancy Vunikura of Okeanos Marshall Islands

Okeanos Marshall Islands’ captain Thoitika Sanchez, Mayor Rufina Jack and Kira Vinke

On Ailuk Atoll, we met with the traditional leaders and local government representatives to get an overview of how climate change is affecting people’s life on the island chain. Ailuk has been severely affected by droughts, especially during El Nino years. People are struggling to find freshwater and their food crops, such as pandanus, coconut and breadfruit are dying from salinized groundwater. In many places king tides have eaten away chops of land.

After these first introductions, Dustin Langidrik, manager of Okeanos Marshall Islands, and I went on to meet with people from different households. Many are working in the copra (dried coconut) production and explained that their harvest is decreasing because of the recurring droughts. Moreover, their source of income is unstable because the sea transport to the islands, the ships which take and buy their harvest, only comes every three or four months. Sometimes it takes even longer.

Kira Vinke interviewing Ailuk’s Mayor Rufina Jack

Kira during an interview at a local household in Ailuk

As the resources on the islands are depleting, more and more people are leaving to go to Majuro, the capital, or even further from home to the US. This is happening despite the fact that most want to stay. But many see no future for their families, as harvests are getting lower and life is getting harder on the Outer Islands. “I want to stay, but I have no choice” one younger respondent who plans to relocate his family to Arkansas explained to us, while his wife attended to their newborn.

The beauty of the islands is overwhelming, and the community tries to take up the challenges jointly. But despite their efforts, there are limits to their capacity to adapt without outside help and without profound knowledge about the coming climate impacts. One problem is also the migration itself, as now there is less of a workforce to implement infrastructural projects or help with the agricultural labor. While some migrants cannot find work in their destinations, others end up in low-paid jobs and are hardly getting by. But some are able to make a good living and send home remittances. These are generally used for basic needs, such as food and medicine.

Rice delivery onboard Okeanos Marshall Islands

Overall, during our trip we found out that people are leaving the islands for many reasons: to be with their relatives, to find better educational opportunities or work. However, the push factors for outmigration, climate change and the depletion of essential resources in remote islands are becoming more evident and they are forcing people out of their homes. The majority of respondents did not know what is causing the climate to change, although they could certainly observe the local changes in their lifetime.

Despite the negative effects climate change has on people’s livelihoods, some of the participants in the study remain hopeful and shared their ideas with us on how to improve the spheres of opportunities on the islands.

Vaka Okeanos Marshall Islands

RMI national canoe race record holder Rain Senight onboard Okeanos Marshall Islands, with OMI General Manager Dustin Langidrik and OMI crew member Iva Vunikura

One reason for hope is tied to the canoe. It is the idea to increase transport frequency to Majuro and within the lagoon, in order to generate income from trade and share information about how to adapt to climate change. It has become even more urgent and clear during this voyage that it is time to abolish the fossil fuel system, so that such efforts may not be in vain.

Blog post by Kira Vinke, Research Analyst to the Director at Potsdam Institute für Climate Impact Research (PIK), 19 December 2017