Rising Sea Levels and Migration

By Kelly Donovan, Environmental Justice Intern
July 14, 2014

Columban Fr. Pat Colgan cutting sugar cane in Fiji

Human migration is caused by many different factors. The environment, especially with the increased effects of climate change, is a large and extremely important push factor causing migration that is often overlooked. Rising sea levels around the world, caused by global warming, will eventually displace millions of people.

One of the most pressing issues for islands in the Pacific is sea level rise. The island of Kiribati is one of the most vulnerable as the country consists of thirty-three atolls, or very small islands that enclose or nearly enclose a shallow lagoon. Only one of them is more than seven feet above sea level, and the ocean is rising an average of half an inch a year. At this rate, some islands in the Pacific, including the atolls of Kiribati, will be underwater in the next three decades. Currently, sea level rise is contributing to the corruption of fresh water systems in a way that has both agricultural as well as health implications. The salt water has infiltrated Kiribati’s freshwater resources and destroyed most of their crop fields. This has created severe water and food shortages.

Earlier this year, the Kiribati government purchased 20 sq km on the Fijian island, Vanua Levu from the Church of England for $8.77 million to provide a home for 100,000 residents of Kiribati in the event their nation goes underwater. However, this does not address the need for refuge for Fijians who are experiencing the same sea level rise that residents of Kiribati face.

Creation is a significant part of Fijian culture. They have strong connections with the land, water and agriculture. Crabs and prawns are not just food they eat, but play an important role in their cultural identify. The majority of a Fijian’s days are spent in the fields or on the sea farming and fishing. Climate change not only threatens these practices individually but also threaten the Fijians’ identity and culture.

Columban Missionaries have served the people in Fiji for over sixty years and other places in Oceania for almost one hundred years. The Columbans have a goal of working with the Fijians, and other cultures, to care for the environment and what they can do to prepare for the future.  Columbans have both led and participated in various environmental awareness campaigns throughout their stay. The most recent campaign, World Environment Day, hosted in Australia in June, focused on education and awareness of the effects of rising sea levels. In his address at the conference, Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras explained the importance of education: “Through an education on the environment, individuals, societies and states will become aware of the transcendent meaningfulness of the world around us.”

Columbans are committed to supporting and leading educational efforts on the need to address the negative effects of climate change. We will participate in the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru, in December. The conference will facilitate discussion on the progress of climate change as well as methods and regulations that can be implemented to address and prevent its negative effects in the future. Columban lay missionary Rowena Cuancio spent nine years in Fiji and related climate change back to the human person: “Climate Change is an issue that touches the core of our very existence, our shared humanity, our shared habitat, and our responsibility as stewards of God’s creation.”