Island nations plan for rising seas, mass migration

MALE, Maldives, Nov 14 (Reuters) - Countries usually evacuate their citizens because of war or a sudden and catastrophic natural disaster.

For the Pacific island state of Kiribati, the climate change disaster facing the nation is no less dramatic but on a slower time scale and means preparing its 100,000 inhabitants for lives in nations less vulnerable to wild weather and rising seas.

"The breakup of our nation is a possibility," Environment Minister Tetabo Nakara told Reuters on Wednesday on the sidelines of an international meeting of small island states in the Maldives capital Male.

Nakara said two villages had already been evacuated because of rising seas since 2000. A government programme aims to give every adult in the archipelago a trade marketable in neighbouring developed countries within five years.

At the Male meeting, representatives of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) want to present a resolution at a U.N. climate change conference in Bali next month.

"It is time to put people back at the heart of climate change diplomacy," Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom told the conference on Tuesday.

Delegates are expected to agree a declaration that climate change threatens the fundamental right to a safe, secure and sustainable environment, forcing developed countries to view rising seas through the prism of human rights.

With a combined population of less than 15 million people and six members who lack UN membership, the 43-strong alliance is a small player in the international community.

But delegates hope to exercise moral authority in Bali by showcasing examples of how climate change is already impacting on individual livelihoods.

"We don't want to give up on our culture and civilisation," Nakara told Reuters. "But we don't want our people to end up as second-class citizens in another country either."

Like the Maldives, St Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean lies just two metres (seven feet) above sea level.


Forced land purchases to build an international airport in 2006 provided the first evidence of major coastal erosion.

"We had owners coming to the government with deeds for five acres (two hectares), but when we surveyed the area, there were only three left," the country's ambassador to the UN explained.

Property records in the country date back no more than a century, showing the speed and scale of erosion. Family estates have been stripped of value overnight, "directly violating an individual's right to property," according to ambassador Camillo Gonsalves.

Insurance companies borne some of the losses, but Gonsalves fears they might introduce an environmental jeopardy clause to exclude coastal erosion in the future.

Island states have also highlighted the limits of international assistance. The St Vincent's government has had to apply to separate funds to construct its international airport and adapt it to rising sea levels.

"We are effectively building the airport and then retrofitting the adaptations at increased costs and with a time lag," Gonsalves says.

Of the AOSIS states, only wealthy Singapore has integrated climate change adaptation into private-sector projects.

Hazri Hassan, of Singapore's environment ministry, told Reuters private developers were required to raise land levels by 125 cm (four feet) above sea level, higher than the most dire UN predictions for sea level rises over the next century.

"We are reclaiming land and expanding," Mr Hassan said. "In Singapore it is more cost effective to adapt than retreat."

But the private sector is more wary about other states experiencing climate change.

OASIS chair Angus Friday is leading negotiations with the World Bank and International Finance Corporation to secure finance for adaptation. "Private sector involvement is a priority," he said. (Editing by David Fogarty)