The Marshall Islands: connecting climate change and migration

  • 2020•04•23     Republic of the Marshall Islands

    © UNU-EHS / Kees van der Geest

    New research from Dr. van der Geest finds that, when asked why they migrate, people in the Marshall Islands hardly mention climate change and environmental problems. However, the survey data from the same research show that more climate-stressed households have higher migration rates.
    Van der Geest leads the Environment and Migration: Interactions and Choices (EMIC) Section at UNU-EHS and has been studying the relation between climate change, ecosystem services and migration in many parts of the world. For this research, he and his team conducted mixed-method fieldwork on the Marshall Islands to understand why islanders migrate and what the future of climate migration holds for Small Island States. Specifically, van der Geest analysed how climatic events affect those living on the islands by conducting a survey on the three islands of Majuro, Mejit and Maloelap.

    Climate change challenges take different forms for islanders

    When asked what climatic events had affected islanders in the last 5 years, 92% of respondents indicated drought and 47% heat waves. King tides and storm surges accounted for 37% and 14% of responses respectively, and typhoons only for 5%. The results indicate that sea level rise is not the only severe and imminent climate threat to Pacific islanders.

    The severity of the impacts of the various climate change-related threats became evident in the response to an open-ended question about how islanders were affected by drought. Respondents noted cases of dehydration due to salty water, and having to spend more time and money to gain access to drinking water, and in more severe cases, even needing to beg for drinking water. “We go to other people’s houses during droughts and ask if they can give us water which is a very shameful thing to do,” replied one respondent.

    Respondents also reported reduced food and fuelwood provisions, which is linked to drought and salinity intrusion that has damaged soil and killed trees. This is of particular concern for the outer islands, which rely less on imported resources.

    According to Kees van der Geest, “the ‘sinking islands’ narrative which is often dominating news coverage around Small Island States is misleading because islands become uninhabitable due to salinity intrusion long before they disappear under water. That is why people also identify droughts and heatwaves as immediate threats. Moreover, the sinking islands narrative creates a feeling of hopelessness and ‘giving up’ while the islanders would like to see much stronger adaptation efforts.” Many of them stated that they do not want to leave their home and roots.

    Reasons to migrate beyond climate change

    The team’s research confirmed that respondents primarily mentioned traditional reasons for migration, such as work, education and family networks. A striking difference to most other migration studies around the world was that seeking adequate healthcare is also an important reason to migrate for inhabitants of the Marshall Islands.

    Very few respondents mentioned climate impacts or environmental stress as primary reasons to move. However, the survey findings in combination with qualitative research tools showed that the situation is more nuanced.

    The researchers found that households that reported having felt impacts of heat waves and storm surges – such as health impacts, agricultural losses or damage to properties – also had higher migration rates. Furthermore, those who perceived deteriorating ecosystem services were found to be more likely to express intentions to migrate within the next 10 years.

    Once people migrated, most often to the United States, a staggering 62% felt that due to environmental factors, a return to their islands might not be possible in the future, underlining how climate change and its related real and perceived risks influence long-term migration and residency decisions.

    To learn more about this research by Dr. van der Geest, you can read the article in Climatic Change journal here.