Climate For Change: Ebeye's Challenge, Hawaiʻi's Lessons

May 24, 2019

Ebeye Island, part of the ring of little islets surrounding the central lagoon in Kwajalein Atoll. The distance between the ocean and the lagoon can be 4-6 blocks. The average elevation is less than 6.5 feet.
Credit CC/NASA

This week, while a delegation of four Pacific atoll nations lobbied President Trump in Washington, Hawai‘i's  Chip Fletcher headed to one of those nations, the Marshall Islands, to keynote a conference on their greatest concern:  climate change.  Just back, Fletcher reports the options the Marshalls face could be considered in Hawai‘i.

A global youth climate strike is set for May 24, Friday, 2019 with over 13 hundred cities around the world participating.  Honolulu’s action will start at 4pm at the corner of Fort Street and Beretania, then proceed to the waterfront.  More about the world wide efforts can be found at Fridays for Future and Climate Strike.

UH Mānoa Geologist, Chip Fletcher, a climate change expert, has been working on projects in the Marshall Islands for the last decade, primarily in Majuro.  This week, he delivered the keynote address at the Third National Dialog on Climate Change in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.  It was held on Ebeye, an islet in the Kwajalein Atoll,

Kwajalein Atoll consists of a ring of reef islets around a large central lagoon. Several of those islets house U.S. military installations and most local residents who service those installations live on Ebeye.

Fletcher says Ebeye’s over 13 ,000 people live on one square mile of a low sand and gravel island that has an average elevation less than two meters above sea level. 

“This is one of the most vulnerable populations in the country, if not the world.”

On Ebeye there are only 4-6 blocks between the lagoon and the ocean.  Fletcher was there as the country considers its options against continual flooding and sea level rise:  build walls, or elevate the land.  World Bank officials were there assessing public opinion on a planned wall, six feet or more above street level. 

The effect on culture and daily life would be drastic, Fletcher says, “You’d be living in this town, and if you look to the ocean, you’d see the back of a wall.”

The wall will cut air circulation, and destroy the view, but Fletcher points out that continual erosion has to be stopped, and repeated wave inundation must be mitigated especially with the threat of hurricanes.

As Ebeye islanders cope with frequent flooding, and infrastructure breakdowns, a crisis seems near.  Still, Fletcher is wary of simple-sounding solutions.

“I have to admit that maybe the wall is a trap.  Thinking that building this wall is a solution…it’s very simplistic thinking to a problem that’s extremely complex when you look at the socio-economic, the social justice, the cultural, the health elements of all this.

In 1956, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission called the Marshall Islands “by far the most contaminated place in the world.” Overcrowded Ebeye has been called the “Slum of the Pacific,” and one major daily chore is finding clean water.

“So is the solution, instead, maybe new building codes?” Asks Fletcher. ”And if you were to implement new building codes, it would be an opportunity to give these folks real houses and real infrastructure.”

Fletcher is interested in leveraging climate mitigation to create better communities. 

He says, “The takeaway for Hawai‘i is, Let’s think very comprehensively about our adaptation steps in the very earliest stages and the only way to do that is for everybody to be well informed.”

Find basic reading from the Honolulu Climate Change Commission.