Current flooding in Bangkok is a grim reminder of the slow drownings of cities and coastlines that lie ahead as climate change warms the ocean and raises sea level. Compounding the problem, many regions such as Bangkok are also getting lower as the ground itself physically sinks due to the overuse of groundwater. At least one expert says that most of the low-lying Thai capital will be below sea level in 50 years if no one acts to protect it.
But for tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders, the consequences of global warming are more immediate as their homes are already very near sea level. Every storm surge is a threat and more frequent and intense storms are becoming more common, as is damage to vital fisheries because of warmer seawater, and the incursion of salty water bubbling up through croplands at high tide.
Worse, many islanders share the serious risk that their nations will lose all of their land territories to rising seas. Then what?
The Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea became the world's first entire community to be displaced by climate change back in 2009. Their effort to make new lives on another Papua New Guinea island 50 miles across the open ocean is the subject of a 2011 Academy-Award-nominated documentary, Sun Come Up. Next in line could be Kiribati, Tuvalu, most of the Cook Islands, the Marshall Islands and the Maldives. Indeed, the United Nations has considered such outcomes of climate change a peacekeeping mission under its purview.
Other artists are trying to draw attention to these vulnerable islands. Samola Puga, from the drowning Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, says she thinks every day about the probability of losing everything she has ever called home. And if that happens, she knows that neither she nor her children or grandchildren will ever be able to go back. Puga fears that her culture, which dates back 3,000 years, is now on the verge of extinction. And she wants you to know about it before its too late.
Puga is the artistic director for a musical group from Tuvalu that, together with groups from Kiribati and Tokelau, are using the power of performance to draw attention to their plight.
Called Water is Rising, the performance features a combination of music, dance and spoken-word traditions, including one of Puga’s original compositions. The performers are on a 14-city tour of the U.S., with six more public performances scheduled in November.
Coincidentally, another perspective on the future of Tuvalu premiered recently as well. Amelia Holowaty Krales, who just returned from 10 months in Tuvalu on a Fulbright grant, published her photographs and a frank, first-person blog about daily life on the island in the Oct. 18 online edition of The New York Times.
For Tuvalu and other nations that face losing all their land, there are enormous questions not only about where they will go but also about what will happen to their exclusive rights to the hundreds of square miles of ocean space that has been their Exclusive Economic Zones.
Wherever the people of a submerged nation may disperse, they should not have to lose their rights and sovereignty just because they have lost their land, says Rosemary Rayfuse, who teaches international law at the University of New South Wales in Australia and Lund University in Sweden. She explained in a recent NYTimes op-ed piece how it could work:
Such prospects may still seem a long way off, but Puga and her companions know the storm is well on its way.
Samola Puga of Tuvalu. (Image courtesy Foundation for World Arts)