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Alaskan villagers become climate refugees as homeland melts

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 24 Apr 2012 15:11 GMT
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HANOI (AlertNet) – The 400-strong Eskimo community in Newtok in western Alaska is living on shaky ground. Literally.

The permafrost – the permanently frozen subsoil – on which the village is located is melting as temperatures warm.

Advanced erosion caused by the Ninglick River next to the village and seasonal flooding and storm surges are further threats to its existence.

The Arctic Sea ice which normally acts as a buffer to storm surges is also reducing, making the village vulnerable to future extreme weather events, said Robin Bronen from the University of Alaska who has been working with the community for five years.

“We don't have hurricanes in Alaska but we've been experiencing hurricane-force winds,” she told AlertNet at the sixth International Conference on Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi.

Newtok, which is below sea-level, is already facing problems with saline intrusion in the water systems, she said.

“They have serious issues with sanitation too because the sewage lagoon is eroding. It was on top of frozen earth and it's now melting,” added Bronen, who is also a human rights lawyer.

For this Yup’ik-speaking Eskimo community of subsistence hunters and fishermen, the only option left for adapting to the changing climate is to relocate.

The Newtok Planning Group, made up of community elders, federal and state agencies and non-government organisations, has chosen a spot nine miles south on Nelson Island called Mertarvik – it means “getting water from the spring” in Yup’ik.

“Their vision of their community is to be sustainable and resilient for the long-term so they're looking at alternative technologies to get the electricity they need and alternative forms of housing so they use less energy,” said Bronen.

Like the residents of Newtok many other people around the world are likely to become climate refugees in the coming decades. Experts say Newtok’s experience underlines the urgent need to come up with a co-ordinated approach for relocating communities forced to abandon their homes because of rising sea levels and changing weather patterns.



The Newtok Planning Group was formed in May 2006 but it was only in 2009 that a barge landing was built at the relocation site to bring materials to build infrastructure. They are starting from scratch.

There is no funding or roadmap and there isn’t a unified government agency that can address the strategic planning needs either, Bronen said.

In 2007, the Army Corps of Engineers estimated the cost of relocating Newtok at between $80 and $130 million, or up to $380,000 per resident. The residents dispute this, saying it would cost much less with community labour.

“It’s been overwhelmingly challenging because none of the agencies have ever relocated a community. They have no mandate to work together,” she said.

The 25 different agencies are more about fixing a water sanitation tank, or building a school or an airstrip in an existing community, according to Bronen.

“It's really different when you're talking about doing all of those things at the same time and at a place where nothing exists,” she said.

“(The concern) is how much time it's going to take to do everything that needs to be done to make the relocation happen before another big storm comes … People need to be moved today, not next year.”

Underlining the threat Newtok continues to face, the community has decided the first structure at Mertarvik will be a multi-purpose evacuation centre. Bronen hopes it will be completed by next summer.


The experience of relocating Newtok shows the need for new institutions that specifically respond to climate-induced relocation and protect the human rights of residents, Bronen said.

“If the Arctic is an indicator of what's to come to the rest of the world, we're not prepared,” she told AlertNet at the conference which ended on Sunday.

She said the adaptation strategies that governments are thinking about are too static and are not robust enough to allow communities to respond to evolving conditions that could worsen. 

“If we don't start thinking about adaptation not being one project but a process that communities themselves have control over, it's going to be really, really difficult for all of us to adapt,” Bronen said.

“This isn't just about the southern hemisphere. It's about all of us. We're all going to be challenged,” she added.

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