Friday, May 1, 2009

Returning to Newtok, Alaska

Floodwaters rip through the village of Newtok, Alaska, destroying its infrastructure.

In October 2008, I did a two-part blog on the world's first climate refugees. Those climate refugees were the indigenous persons of Newtok, Alaska. Their village was literally being sucked into the ocean. At the time I did the blogs, the main problem to their relocation seemed to the US government's reluctance to pay for the move. Click here for the first part - then here for the second part.

Here is the latest update regarding the villagers of Newtok, AK.

The tiny coastal village of Newtok, AK has been under siege by the Arctic Ocean for many years now. The ocean has been advancing on this tiny settlement at the rate of 90’ per year. Due to global warming, the permafrost and coastal ice shelves are melting. These natural barriers prevented the ocean from reclaiming the land and helped to protect the villages against summer deluges.

The original plan was to relocate the approximately 340 residents to Nelson Island (by 2012) where the villagers have already built three homes themselves with the aid of government grants in anticipation of the relocation.

When we last visited Newtok, the biggest barrier to the relocation was the government's and other stakeholders’ infighting about who would eventually end up paying the bill.

The community has voted to relocate its residents to new homes 9 miles away – up the Ninglick River. I’m not sure why they are not moving to Nelson Island; although, I suspect the reason has to do with money and the costs involved in moving 9 miles as compared to Nelson Island.

"We are seeing the erosion, flooding and sinking of our village right now," said Stanley Tom, a Yup'ik Eskimo and tribal administrator for the Newtok Traditional Council.

The crisis they are facing is unique and insidious because its devastating effects creep up on communities by eating away at their infrastructure while leaving no apparent impact until the danger becomes imminent. It is unlike sudden natural disasters such as wildfires, earthquakes or hurricanes which leave a discernable path of destruction immediately following the event.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that situations such as Newtok are part of a growing climate change crisis that will displace 150 million people by 2050.

Tom's and many of the other residents’ ancestors have been living in the region for centuries, Tom said. He expressed a fear of the relocating Yup’ik Eskimos: "Our land is our resource, our source of food; it's our country. We live off of it. If we go to another village or city, we will not be able to survive," Tom said.

Meanwhile 500 miles (800 km) in Anchorage, AK, the first Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on climate change is being attended by more than 400 indigenous peoples from 80 different nations.

The conference attempted to address the global issues effecting indigenous persons, such as the Yup’ik Eskimos of Newtok. They also explored ways to raise global awareness regarding the crisis facing these indigenous communities worldwide and to help them “speak with a more unified voice”. The five-day summit was hosted by the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

Summit delegates will work on a declaration outlining the climate change-related issues facing indigenous people. The declaration will be presented at the Conference of Parties United Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, Denmark at the end of this year.

"On the international level, the meeting in Copenhagen at the end of the year is incredibly important, it will lay down the road map on how we tackle climate change and who gets to be involved," said Sam Johnston of Tokyo, Japan-based United Nations University, a co-sponsor of the summit.

"Climate change poses threats and dangers to the survival of indigenous communities worldwide, even though they contribute least to greenhouse emissions," United Nations General Assembly President Miguel D'Escoto said at the summit.

Indigenous populations in Alaska are not the only threatened native persons globally. Papua, New Guinea has experienced an increase in population coupled with rising sea levels that is decreasing the amount of farmland available to feed the increasing population.

In the African nation of Kenya, the Samburu tribe is on the verge of a food and economic crisis as lengthy droughts kill livestock that provides income and sustenance for the community.

In Mexico, highland Mayan farmers are battling decreasing rainfall, unseasonal frosts and unprecedented changes in daytime temperatures. These conditions will not support their traditional crops forcing the farmers to plant alternative crops. They also have to search for other sources of irrigation.

"We are the ones that are the most effected" by climate change, said Saul Vicente-Vasquez, a Mexican economist and longtime human rights activist for indigenous peoples.

This phenomenon is becoming so widespread that a new word has been coined just for this type of relocation: climigration. The term was coined by Alaskan human rights lawyer, Robin Bronen, to describe the forced and permanent migration of communities due to severe climate changes and their effects on essential infrastructure. This does not include migration caused by natural catastrophes such as hurricanes, earthquakes and the like.

"There needs to be a new institutional framework that is created, that's based in human rights doctrines ... that facilitates relocations," Bronen said.

"We have a new village, but we don't have all the funding that the village needs to move right now," said Sally Russell Cox planner with the Alaska division of Community and Regional Affairs.

Meanwhile, village leaders continue to work with the various federal and state representatives, in good faith, while they plan to relocate. As for Tom, he said he's looking forward to getting it over with. "We hope to move to the new village site and be able to get on with regular life.”

We know what we are losing on the ice surface; but, take a look under the ice. This, too, will be lost.


kathi said...

Very interesting - thanks P!

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, according to the BIA civil engineer's report and the Army Corp of Engineers Soil Survery, the problem is not global warming or ocean erosion (I think you are confusing Newtok with another Alaskan Community).

The problem is bank erosion from the Ninglick River.

As for the permafrost, there is no indication of global trends affecting Newtok, only typical haphazzard Arctic construction.

The New York Times article on Newtok, also covered in Discover, The Guardian and it wrong.

The origin of the problem is the State of Alaska, who sited Newtok on the unstable banks of the Ninglick and Newtok rivers because it was convenient for barges to land there.

The native Yup'ik people avoided the site for 2,000 years and summered on Nelson Island, the new site for the new Newtok

dan said...

oped here in Juneau Empire on climate refugees in alaska in 2500 AD