Vanishing shores

In the Marshall Islands, a concerted community effort is fighting hard to protect not only their home, but also their identity, their landmarks, their history, and their future.

Words by Max Blakesberg
Photographs by Shawn Heinrichs

Imagine an idyllic archipelago of 29 coral atolls and over a thousand individual islands, each a repository of ancient traditions and cultural heritage. This is the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a place where the rhythm of the tides has always been in harmony with the lifestyle of its inhabitants, from the patterns of fishing to the cycles of local folklore. For generations, the landmarks of these atolls, be they natural formations or sites of historical significance, have served as living monuments that stitch together the fabric of Marshallese culture. These landmarks are more than just geographical features: They are essential elements that sustain the island’s unique biodiversity and cultural legacy.

Climate change, manifested most directly in rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions, is dramatically altering this dynamic. The same tides that nurtured the islands are now eroding their shores, taking with them not only sand and soil, but also the landmarks integral to the Marshallese cultural identity. This dual erosion of both land and culture is not just a crisis. It’s an existential threat to an entire way of life.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), even in a low-emissions scenario, sea levels could rise as much as one metre by 2030. For the Marshall Islands, where the highest point is only two metres above sea level, 40% of the buildings in the capital city of Majuro would become permanently submerged.

But the crisis goes beyond the loss of land. Scott Paul, the city manager in Ebeye, the most populous island of the country, articulates the depth of this loss: “We have trees that we used to play under as children that are now submerged due to erosion.” These aren’t merely trees. They are part of the cultural fabric, woven with stories and irreplaceable childhood memories.

Studies conducted across 15 atolls in the Marshall Islands report increased salinization of soil and groundwater, contaminating and reducing the viability of arable land. This is not just a logistical issue. It represents a direct assault on a way of life that has sustained the Marshallese for generations.“Losing these sites is like losing part of your identity,” Scott Paul says. In the face of this relentless existential threat, the stakes go beyond relocation and land loss.

Rising sea levels and more frequent king tides pose an unprecedented threat to the Marshall Islands. Nowhere is the combination of cultural and physical loss more apparent than in Majuro, where burial grounds are beginning to wash away, leaving behind only the remains of previous generations and erasing the opportunity for younger generations to recognise the significance and history of their ancestors. Adding to the issue, research indicates that rising sea levels are causing the water table to rise, allowing saltwater intrusion that can cause trees to blow over, which in turn can uproot graves. The loss of newer cemeteries or burial grounds within a single lifetime is a stark reminder that the impacts of sea level rise are real and immediate.

The Marshall Islands also face severe environmental impacts that directly affect community well-being. One critical issue is the salinisation of freshwater aquifers. The intrusion of saltwater into these natural reservoirs makes them less viable as sources of drinking water. This degradation adds another layer of urgency, affecting daily life and public health.

In response to this pressing issue, organisations like Jo-Jikum are rising to the challenge. Kathy Kiljner-Jenner, founder of the organisation, says: “Jo-Jikum, meaning ‘your home’ or ‘your place’ in Marshallese, stands for a youth for a greener, more lush place.” Jollia Peter, a local youth climate activist and youth coordinator at Jo-Jikum, adds to this urgency and shares her perspective on the critical role land ownership plays in Marshallese culture: “Land rights is one of the most important parts of culture back home,” she emphasises. Stemming from a matriarchal society where land ownership is passed down through the women of the household, land rights form the crux of Marshallese identity.

Jo-Jikum seeks to raise both local and international awareness about the imminent threats faced by the Marshallese people. They are fighting for the only home they have ever known, a home that may soon vanish unless global action is taken. Together, both the visible loss of landmarks and the invisible degradation of resources like fresh water, compound the complexities of living in a changing climate. The Marshallese people are witnessing the disappearance of both their history and their life-sustaining natural resources. The need for action has never been clearer or more urgent.

While the impacts of the climate crisis on the Marshall Islands are daunting, the resilience and ingenuity of its people have led to a variety of innovative solutions aimed at preserving land and culture. In the words of environmental activist Kathy Kiljner-Jenner, “Part of the education that we have to [teach] our young people and […] the community […] is highlighting the differences between [urgent and future threats], that solar panels can help us for the future, but seawalls are going to protect us now, and that we need to keep an eye out for what’s going to be irreversibly lost and protect those [resources] as well.”

Photographs by Shawn Heinrichs

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Issue 33
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This feature appears in ISSUE 33: VANISHING CULTURES of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 33
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain

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