'We share the same backyard': The islands disappearing off Australia

Halfway between Queensland and Hawaii, 6,000 islanders are set to lose their homes. One is visiting Australia to fight for their survival.

Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands.

Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. Source: Getty Images

Read any backpacker’s guide to the Marshall Islands and it’ll tell you time is a loose concept in that part of the Pacific. Dinner at 7 will probably be served at 10. Your return flight may not turn up until the next day. 

"Things happen when they happen, and a lot of times, they don’t happen on time,” poet and climate change activist Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner tells SBS News.

Kathy, 30, grew up in the Marshalls – an independent nation of more than 1,200 tropical islands that lie about halfway between northeastern Australia and Hawaii. 

“We’re patient, everybody is,” she says.

But time is not something the locals have in droves; almost 6,000 of them live on low-lying islands that now face being swallowed up by rising seas.

 Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner
Poet and climate change activist Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner. Source: Supplied

Growing oceans

The Marshall Islands are on average only two metres above sea level.

“Some parts are also so narrow you can stand in the middle of the road and feel the ocean spray on either side,” Kathy says. 

And that ocean is only getting bigger. 

A 2011 showed sea levels near the Marshall Islands had risen by about by 7mm per year since 1993, higher than the global annual average of 2.8–3.6 mm. 

Some parts are also so narrow you can stand in the middle of the road and feel the ocean spray on either side.
The Marshall Islands are made up of more than 1,200 islands.
The Marshall Islands are made up of more than 1,200 islands. Source: AP

The science is nothing new; global warming is causing ice to melt and seas to expand, leading to increased flooding - but the realities have hit home in recent years.

In 2014, the Marshalls experienced their worst flooding in 30 years; the capital Majuro was hit three times.

“I’ve talked to a few of my elders and they’ve never seen flooding like that happen,” Kathy says.

“It brings the threat to our feet and reminds us: you might not be here soon.” 

Marshall Islands sea level rise projections - Pacific Climate Change Science Program 2011 report
Source: Pacific Climate Change Science Program

How long have we got?

Last year, Kathy attended a conference on global warming in London – it was the first time she had shared a room with a climate scientist. Like many islanders aware of all the estimates out there about when calamity could hit the islands - she just wanted the facts.

“I cornered him [and asked] ‘do we have a fighting chance?’ and he said, 'long story short, he didn’t know, he just didn’t know'.”

Waves surge during a king tide event on Kili in the Marshall Islands in 2015.
Waves surge during a king tide event on Kili in the Marshall Islands in 2015. Source: Bikini Atoll Local Government

Kathy thinks the at-risk Marshall Islands could be underwater in the next half-century: “50 years… that makes sense to me, but I’m not a scientist,” she says.

But some islands may be uninhabitable well before then.

“Something a marine biologist friend of mine said recently really struck me,” she says.

“It isn’t necessarily that our islands will go down, that they’ll disappear, but floodings that are occurring right now will happen so frequently that the islands will become unlivable.”

Collective responsibility

The Marshall Islands are home to about 53,000 people and Kathy is now a leading voice in their fight for climate justice around the world. This month she is visiting Australia.

The islands have close ties with the US - , and President Donald Trump’s recent stalling of the Paris Climate Agreement.

But, Kathy says, Australia must also take some responsibility for the islands.

“I know some people would say ‘why is that our responsibility?’ but Australia is a huge emitter of carbon. It may not be the biggest, but every little bit counts... We contributed the least and yet, we are the ones who are getting affected first,” she says. 

“I have been following the #StopAdani campaign and they [Australia] can’t keep opening any more coal mines.”

The $16 billion Carmichael coal mine proposed for Central Queensland would be one of the largest in the world.

“That’s disastrous for the rest of the Pacific and we share the same backyard.” 

[Australia and the Marshall Islands] share the same backyard.
Marshall Islands map
The red marker points to the location of the Marshall Islands, which lie about halfway between Australia and Hawaii. Source: Google Maps

In November, Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine stepped up criticism of Australia's policies on burning coal.

"We are very disappointed in Australia because we are neighbours to them," she said.

Back in 2015, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was caught on camera appearing to mock the threat of climate change to the region.

“Time doesn't mean anything when you're about to have water lapping at your door,” he said in response to a comment about the slow pace of events at the Pacific Islands Forum in Port Moresby.

But the latest government report shows Australia gives about $4.8million in annual aid to the Marshall Islands, as well as emergency support following natural disasters.

Marshall Islands map
Source: polhn.org

'What about our identity?'

Kathy now lives in Portland, Oregon, after moving for her partner’s job, but returns to the Marshalls as often as she can to visit her parents and check in on the non-profit she has co-founded.

Jo-Jikum (meaning ‘your home’ in the local language) aims to empower Marshallese youth to seek solutions to climate change. Over 50 per cent of islanders are under 29 and they are an “untapped resource,” Kathy says. 

Marshallese youth
Kathy, far right, has founded a non-profit in the Marshall Islands to empower local youth to act on climate change. Source: JoJikum.org

She admits she only really got to grips with climate change herself in her early twenties, after she returned to the islands after studying at university in the US.

“I was hit by how incredibly vulnerable we were,” she says. 

But something bothered her, and still does today: “All these articles just assumed we would have to leave, that there was nothing we could do about it.”

“The way they spoke about us: ‘Will they have passports? Will they still be a country?’ I was like, how can they just be giving up on us already?” 

How can they just be giving up on us already?
She was sick of being written off as “doomed” and more importantly, realised there was more at stake than just their houses: “We just lost our home. What about our identity? What about our culture?” 

UN Climate Summit 2014
Kathy (pictured with her partner and daughter) received a standing ovation at the UN Climate Summit in 2014. Source: AFP

Kathy made a name for herself at the United Nations Climate Summit in New York in 2014. She performed a poem dedicated to her newborn daughter and received a standing ovation from world leaders. “No one’s drowning baby … no one’s gonna become a climate change refugee,” it read.

Her first collection of poetry, Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter was published in 2017.

Fight or flight

The Marshallese people have the option to leave whenever they want. “We have direct and open immigration status that allows us to freely move to the US without green cards and without visas,” Kathy says. 

But many aren’t looking for a quick fix; there’s simply no place like home.

“It’s home, it’s my island,” Kathy says. “It’s somewhere that my ancestors have been in for their entire lives, it’s somewhere where I will hear Marshallese language spoken and see it written on signs, that’s what I fight for.”

There’s still time to turn this ship around.
“We shouldn’t have to move, there’s still time to turn this ship around and do what is necessary to save our islands. Who we are is tied to that land... we can’t just leave.”

There’s a word in the local language, ‘iakwe’ (pronounced ‘yawk-way’) which islanders use to say ‘hello’, and ‘with love’.

“Literally translated, it means ‘you are my rainbow’,” Kathy says. It also has another meaning she never hopes to use: ‘goodbye’.

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner will be speaking at All About Women at Sydney Opera House on 4 March, the Wheeler Centre Melbourne on 6 March and WOMADelaide on 11 March.

*This article has been updated to include sea level rise projections. 

7 min read
Published 4 March 2018 at 3:10pm
By Kate Sullivan