Sinking islands

Residents on the island of Carti Sugtupu are moving to escape rising sea waters. Inset: Small islands like Fiji have seen the effects of climate change. Here lies an abandoned graveyard flooded by a high tide. Picture: BAC/ AFP:Luis Acosta

On a tiny island in the Caribbean sea, hundreds of people are preparing to move to escape rising sea levels that threaten homes.

Carti Sugtupu is only the size of five football fields but the island, off Panama’s northern coast, crams houses together with barely an inch to spare. Some homes jut out to the sea on stilts.

The island’s Indigenous community of fewer than 2000 people scrapes by without potable water or sanitation.

Most residents live off fishing, harvesting cassava and plantain crops and some tourism.

But now, climate change-induced sea level rises are threatening residents on the island.

Experts say the sea will engulf Carti Sugtupu and dozens of neighbouring islands in the Guna Yala region by the end of the century.

Forty-nine of the isles are populated and rest just a few feet above sea level.

“We have noticed that the tide has risen,” retired teacher Magdalena Martinez, 73, said.

“We think we’re going to sink. We know it’s going to happen.”

Ms Martinez is one of hundreds of the island inhabitants moving to a settlement on mainland Panama newly built by the government. While it may save islanders, the move risks their culture.

“This will change our lifestyle quite a bit,” Ms Martinez said.

But she added: “It won’t change our spirit, it won’t change our habits.”

Leaving in ‘search of a better quality of life’

Climate change is increasingly deteriorating the living conditions of those on Carti Sugtupu.

There is no drinking water and residents go out in boats to collect it from rivers or buy it on the mainland.

Few have reliable electricity, and most receive a few hours of power a day from a public generator.

None of the residents on Carti Sugtupu have their own toilets.

They visit communal cubicles at the ends of piers where wooden boards perched over the sea serve as latrines.

“There is no room to expand homes or for children to play,” Human Rights Watch said in a recent report on the island.

“Floods and storms have made life even harder … affecting housing, water, health and education.

“Such extreme weather is only expected to become more common as the climate crisis accelerates.”

After years of promises and delays, the government has announced by the end of this year or early 2024 it will be ready to move families to the mainland.

Panama’s Housing Ministry said the government was building 300 homes for 300 families, with an average of five people per family.

Resident teacher Braulio Navarro, 62, said he had to cross the island every morning just to go to the toilet. He cannot wait to move.

“I have no alternative but to go in search of a better quality of life,” Mr Navarro said.

“I know that there will be 24-hour electricity, there will be fans, air conditioning, there will be a great benefit for my family.”

Nations take ocean pollution to international court

Meanwhile, the prime ministers of two small island nations have started international court hearings over the obligations of other countries to combat climate change.

The prime ministers of Tuvalu and Antigua and Barbuda will give evidence at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to consider if carbon emissions absorbed by the ocean should be considered marine pollution.

The Hamburg court will issue advisory opinion on what the obligations of other countries are to combat climate change. The advice is not legally binding but could guide countries as they craft climate protection laws.

The prime ministers represent the Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law (COSIS) and will argue countries have an obligation to protect the marine environment, including from greenhouse gas emissions.

“We come here seeking urgent help, in the strong belief that international law is an essential mechanism for correcting the manifest injustice that our people are suffering as a result of climate change,” Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano said.

Excessive carbon pollution results in damage to the oceans, including coral bleaching and acidification.

The low-lying islands like Tuvalu and Vanuatu are also at risk of becoming submerged by water by the end of the century.

Vanuatu led a campaign to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an advisory opinion on countries’ obligations to address climate change.

The UN General Assembly in March voted to refer the case to the ICJ, which will issue an opinion in 2024.

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