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Panama prepares to evacuate first island in face of rising sea levels

On a small island off Panama’s Caribbean coast, about 300 families are packing their belongings in anticipation of drastic change. Generations of Gunas who grew up in Gardi Sugdub in a life dedicated to the sea and tourism will exchange it next week for the dry land of the mainland.

They go there voluntarily – sort of.

The Gardi Sugdub Gunas are the first of 63 communities along Panama’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts that government officials and scientists expect will have to relocate due to sea level rise in the coming decades .

Recently, the island’s indigenous inhabitants have rowed or paddled with outboard motors to fish. The children, some in uniform and others dressed in colorful local textiles called molas, chattered as they rushed through the maze of narrow, dusty streets to get to school.

“We are a little sad, because we are going to leave behind the homes that we have known all our lives, the relationship with the sea, where we fish, where we bathe and where the tourists come, but the sea sinks the island little by little,” said Nadín Morales, 24, who is preparing to move with her mother, uncle and boyfriend.

An official with Panama’s Housing Ministry said some people had decided to stay on the island until it was no longer safe, without revealing a specific number. Authorities will not force them to leave, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.

Gardi Sugdub is one of approximately 50 populated islands in the Guna Yala Territory archipelago. It is only about 400 yards (366 yards) long and 150 yards (137 yards) wide. Seen from above, it’s pretty much a spiky oval surrounded by dozens of small docks where residents dock their boats.

Every year, especially when strong winds whip up the sea in November and December, water fills the streets and enters homes. Climate change not only causes sea levels to rise, but it also warms the oceans and thus causes more violent storms.

The Gunas have tried to reinforce the edge of the island with rocks, stilts and coral, but seawater continues to flow in.

“Lately I have seen that climate change has had a major impact,” Morales said. “Now the tide is reaching a level never before reached and the heat is unbearable.”

The Guna Autonomous Government decided twenty years ago that they should consider leaving the island, but at the time it was because the island was becoming too populated. The effects of climate change have accelerated this thinking, said Evelio López, a 61-year-old teacher on the island.

He plans to move with relatives to the new site on the mainland that the government has developed at a cost of $12 million. The concrete houses sit on a grid of cobblestone streets carved out of the lush tropical jungle just over 2 kilometers from the port, where an eight-minute boat ride takes them to Gardi Sugdub.

Leaving the island is “a big challenge, because more than 200 years of our culture comes from the sea, so leaving this island means a lot of things,” López said. “We are leaving the sea, the economic activities that we have there on the island, and now we are going to be on dry land, in the forest. We will see what the long-term result will be.

Steven Paton, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s physical monitoring program in Panama, said the move “is a direct consequence of climate change through sea level rise.”

“The islands are on average only half a meter above sea level, and as this level rises, sooner or later the Gunas will almost surely have to abandon all the islands by the end of the century or before. »

“All coasts around the world are being affected by this situation at different rates,” Paton said.

Residents of a small coastal community in Mexico moved inland last year after storms continued to wash away their homes. Governments are being forced to act, from the Italian lagoon city of Venice to coastal communities in New Zealand.

A recent study carried out by the Climate Change Directorate of the Ministry of Environment of Panama, with the support of universities in Panama and Spain, estimates that by 2050, Panama would lose approximately 2.01% of its territory coastal due to rising sea levels.

Panama estimates it will cost about $1.2 billion to relocate the roughly 38,000 residents who will face rising sea levels in the short to medium term, said Ligia Castro, director of climate change at the ministry. of the environment.

In Gardi Sugdub, the women who make the ornately embroidered molas worn by Guna women hang them in front of their houses when finished, trying to attract the attention of visiting tourists.

The island and other islands along the coast have enjoyed ongoing tourism for years.

Braucilio de la Ossa, deputy secretary of Carti, the port opposite Gardi Sugdub, said he was considering moving with his wife, daughter, sister-in-law and mother-in-law. Some of his wife’s relatives will remain on the island.

He said the biggest challenge for those moving would be changing their lifestyle by moving from the sea to inland, even if the distance is relatively small.

“Now that they will be in the forest, their way of living will be different,” he said.

News Source : www.nbcnews.com
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