Rising seas and worsening conditions unfold in the Marshalls, driving islanders to NWA

Situations driving more to NWA, representatives say

FILE - An aerial photo shows a small section of the atoll that has slipped beneath the water line only showing a small pile of rocks at low tide on Majuro Atoll in the Marshall Islands on Nov. 8, 2015. For decades, the tiny Marshall Islands has been a stalwart American ally. Its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has made it a key strategic outpost for the U.S. military. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith, File)

The rising Pacific Ocean is swallowing the Marshall Islands, exacerbating problems or creating new ones already driving citizens to leave.

Seawater already seeps in and pollutes local water supplies in a growing number of the islands' underground aquifers, according to an Oct. 22 study by the World Bank.

Rising ocean temperature, another effect of climate change, is killing coral reefs and the marine life that depend upon them, the study says. Fishing is a daily and needed source of food for the Marshallese, said Benetick Maddison, Assistant Director and Project Specialist for Youth, Climate, and Nuclear Issues at the Marshallese Educational Initiative.

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"We're losing more than a place to live. We're losing our place in the world," Maddison said.

Sea level in the Marshall Islands has risen 7.7 inches since 1993, according to the study. Every inch of the continuing rise makes less of the low-lying islands livable, the study says.

Northwest Arkansas has the largest community of Marshall Islanders in the United States, U.S. Census figures show. More are arriving, said Maddison and Melisa Lelan, founder and executive director of the Arkansas Coalition of the Marshallese. The immigration is driven by a variety of factors in the home islands, including unemployment, lack of services and radiation lingering from nuclear weapons testing, they said.

"It's already happening," Lelan said of increased emigration from the home islands. Lelan testified at an Oct. 21 congressional hearing about problems in the home islands that started with U.S. nuclear weapons testing in 1946.

The U.S. took control of the islands from Japan after World War II, then conducted nuclear weapons tests there. Her testimony was among those given to the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Natural Resources Committee.

The now-independent Republic of the Marshall Islands agreed to a "Compact of Free Association" with the United States in 1986. The measure granted the islands independence. It includes a framework to settle claims and disputes between the two countries, including on nuclear issues.

The compact allows Marshallese citizens to work and go to school in the U.S. The U.S. also agreed to defend the islands and is permitted to conduct military maneuvers and testing on Kwajalein Atoll.

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The compact expires in 2023, and negotiations to extend it have yet to begin -- to the frustration of members of Congress and the Marshallese government, expressed at the subcommittee meeting.

Nuclear testing set off 67 devices between 1946 and 1958, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. The "Castle Bravo" test of March 1, 1954, was the largest nuclear detonation ever conducted by the United States, 1,000 times more powerful than the first atomic bomb used on Hiroshima, Japan.

The total explosive power of the tests was "the equivalent of setting off 1.7 Hiroshima bombs every day for 12 years," according to the Oct. 21 congressional testimony of Casten Nemra, the Marshall Island's minister of foreign affairs.

After the last tests, the U.S. scraped radioactive debris into one of the testing's bomb craters on Runit Island and covered it with an 18-inch thick, 377-foot-wide concrete dome. The dome, which never contained all the nuclear contamination, is leaking, partly because of rising sea levels, according to subcommittee testimony.

The U.S. and Marshall Islands are in a dispute over who should pay for repairs to Runit Dome, Nemra told the subcommittee. The costs of repair are not known because testing of the dome's groundwater seepage is not complete, other witnesses told the subcommittee.


Besides rising seas and nuclear radiation, the islands face other environmental problems. Droughts and floods in the islands are becoming more frequent and severe, the study and Maddison said. So are "king tides," which are especially high tides happening several times a year, according to the study. They flood otherwise habitable or productive areas.

The Marshall Islands' rate of rising seas doubles the world's average, according to the study. Without "any climate adaptation and mitigation measures, the Marshall Islands will be one of the first nations to experience sea level rise as a genuine existential threat," the study says.

Mitigation measures recommended by the study include sea walls to keep the rising waters out of cities. A 1-meter increase -- more than 3 feet -- in sea levels is highly likely by 2100, according to the multifederal agency U.S. Global Change Research Program. That level would permanently flood 37% of the buildings in Majuro, the islands' capital and largest city, the World Bank study says.

Sea walls to protect the islands would cost an estimated $28,250 per meter of length, for 50 years of protection, a figure that includes construction, leases and maintenance, and amounts to about $45.5 million per mile. And sea walls damage the environment on their own, the study says. Cutting off beaches makes erosion on the sea-side worse.

Expensive construction projects, such as sea walls, are far beyond the means of the impoverished Pacific island nation, Maddison said. The study estimates the population of all the Marshall Islands at 54,584 -- about the size of Bentonville and with a much lower average income. Maddison estimates that the population is lower than that.

By far the largest private industry in the islands is commercial fishing conducted by other countries, Maddison said. The Marshall Islands and other island nations negotiated an agreement to get something from the fishing, but succeeded in getting only 5% to 6% of the proceeds, he said.

Eldon J. Alik, consul general at the Marshallese Consulate in Springdale, said the latest census figures in the home islands are still being analyzed, but will show that the islands' population dropped since the previous census.

There are 1,156 islands in the Marshall Islands, most of which are uninhabitable. The islanders live on a total of 70 square miles of them. according to the World Bank study and Marshallese government records.

For comparison, the inhabitable land area of the islands is equal to the area of Fort Smith scattered among a stretch of ocean the size of South Dakota. Majuro is about 2,300 miles southwest of Honolulu.

Protection measures are not the only major construction expense faced in the Marshall Islands.


Bipartisan anger greeted U.S. government witnesses during the hearing by the Subcommittee on Oversight. Chairwoman Katie Porter, D-Calif., accused a U.S. Department of Energy official of lying to Congress in a letter about integrity testing of Runit Dome.

"That dome is leaking, and the danger is unclear," she said.

Government witnesses disputed the criticism, and said they are improving and expanding groundwater tests in the islands to determine exactly what new contamination is taking place.

Ranking Republican member Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., rebuked government witnesses for what he called inexcusable delays in discussing -- much less doing anything about -- problems in the Marshall Islands.

The United States operates a testing site for missiles and anti-missile defense there. The Marshall Islands also serve as a U.S. base for surveillance of international use of space, such as satellites.

Those facilities are vital to U.S. security, Gosar and other subcommittee members said.

Payments from the U.S. for testing and other federal payments account for about 70% of the Marshallese economy, according to Alik. Yet the Compact of Free Association is due to expire in January 2023. Negotiations to renew it have yet to begin, according to news accounts.

The Marshallese want to discuss the nuclear and climate issues as part of the negotiations, Nemra said.

"Sea level rise is causing radioactive materials to leak into the lagoon due to the faulty and cost-cutting construction of the dome," Nemra said of Runit.

No cost estimates for mitigation measures and dome repair are available, according to the World Bank.

Research shows most of the radioactive material was never put under the dome in the first place, he said. Much of that research has been classified since 1958 and still has not been shared with the Marshallese government, he said. The radioactive material in the islands includes waste from nuclear tests in Nevada, excavated and dumped in the islands, Nemra said.

Matthew Mouray is the undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Energy who oversees nuclear-related conditions in the Marshall Islands. He told the subcommittee Runit Dome is in no immediate danger of collapsing.

"The most notable and immediate impact of rising sea levels on Runit Dome is associated with the physical effects of storm surge and wave-driven flooding," Mouray told the committee.

Broken U.S. promises to treat the damage from nuclear testing and attempts to avoid the subject now are obvious to islanders, Lelan told the committee.

"I live with these folks in the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas, and many are direct descendants of nuclear victims who have shared their personal stories of displacement and how their nuclear legacy has affected their homes, food supply and everyday lives," she testified.

A pathway to citizenship in the United States should be part of negotiations for a new compact, she said.

"We are engulfed with complicated immigration issues," she said.

Porter said the State Department refused to send a witness to the hearing for reasons she called "false," and extensively briefed Department of Energy and Department of Interior witnesses on what not to say in their committee appearances.


The Oct. 21 subcommittee meeting was a rare instance of the Marshall Islanders getting direct attention to pressing problems, said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark. The former mayor of Rogers represents Marshallese concentrated in Northwest Arkansas. He introduced Lelan at the committee meeting.

An estimated 30,000 Marshallese live in the United States and half of them are in Arkansas, U.S. Census figures show, with most of those living in and around Springdale. About 7,000 more live in Hawaii, and the rest are scattered, figures show.

"No other congressional district has a concentration of Marshallese like that, so it's difficult to get a discussion going" on the issues affecting the Marshall Islands, Womack said in a Nov. 9 interview. "You have to spend much of your time explaining what the issues are before you can even have an intelligent discussion.

"A lot of House members think we don't need to give 'our' money to foreign countries, but we made commitments to the Marshallese," Womack said. "It's wrong not to honor the commitments we made."

The islands are vital to U.S. security, he said. The Chinese are more than willing to fill any vacuum the United States leaves behind, he said.

So far the Marshallese have stood beside the United States and turned down Chinese offers of assistance and infrastructure, Womack said.

Getting notice for Marshallese issues is hard now, Maddison agreed. Losing much or -- eventually -- all of the islands to the Pacific can only make the situation worse, he said. Worst-case climate scenarios put all of the islands underwater by 2100, he said.

Having to leave home is one thing, Maddison said, but knowing home is erased is another. His family moved to the United States when he was 6 years old. They still send money home to their family on the islands, he said.

"We're responsible for only 0.0001% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and we're going to be one of the first countries to lose the battle against climate change," he said.

Beyond the loss of a national identity, the Marshallese face the prospect of losing their national standing.

"Are we still a sovereign country if that happens?" he said. "Do we still have a seat at the United Nations? Do we still have borders?"

What is happening to the Marshall Islands should be a warning to everyone else, Maddison said.

"The future will be tough if we don't turn around and prioritize the health and well-being of our planet," he said. "We can't wait until every one of us is personally affected. If we wait for that to happen in the wealthy nations, then it is too late."

World Bank study on rising sea levels in the Marshall Islands:


Sources: World Bank and the Republic of the Marshall Islands

Oct. 21 congressional hearing on radioactivty and other problems in the Marshalls:


Source: Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Natural Resources Committee