Co-PI(s): Victoria Keener (East-West Center) and Matthew Widlansky (University of Hawaiʻi Sea Level Center)
Collaborating Partner(s): Daniel Ervin (East-West Center), John Marra (NOAA), Kristie Ebi (University of Washington Center for Health and the Global Environment), Maxine Burkett (University of Hawaiʻi School of Law), Mark Stege (Marshall Islands Conservation Society), Francyne Wase-Jacklick (Marshall Islands Ministry of Health and Human Services)
Residents of the Republic of the Marshall Islands in Micronesia are experiencing climate-related health impacts associated with drought (gastrointestinal illnesses and conjunctivitis), sea-level rise (loss of infrastructure, housing, and arable land), heat stress (chronic kidney disease), and flooding and extreme rainfall events (vector borne diseases including dengue and chikungunya). Non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, may be associated with declines in locally-produced food and available fish stocks. Mental health issues can result from the economic, physical, and cultural losses that are driven or exacerbated by climate change. With a population spread across 34 coral atolls and islands, the Marshall Islands’ healthcare systems are under-resourced and unprepared to confront these impacts. Professional capacity is already stretched to the limits. Meanwhile, overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions are further exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. In response to these complex and interacting factors, many Marshall Islands residents are relocating to other areas, including Hawaiʻi and the mainland United States. While the Compact of Free Association currently allows citizens of the Marshall Islands to migrate to the US without a visa, the agreement is set to expire in 2023 and the legal future of these migrants is uncertain.
Preliminary Pacific RISA work in the Marshall Islands and the US has found that the factors triggering human migration are complex, involving job opportunities, seeking healthcare and education, environmental changes, and visiting family – and crucially, these are often intertwined. Drought currently poses a greater threat than sea level rise and heat stress when it comes to Marshall Islanders who choose to migrate, and drought has dramatic direct and indirect impacts on human health through freshwater availability and agricultural productivity. Nevertheless, climate-related changes are expected to influence migration and health outcomes into the future throughout the Pacific Islands region, with implications for both sending and receiving locations. This project will use policy-oriented workshops and discussions in the Marshall Islands and Hawaiʻi to improve the use of climate information among health professionals, policy makers, and community organizations about the climate-related health risks that migrants may experience now or are expected to face in the future. Currently the team is analyzing survey data collected from 200 households across three locations in the Marshall Islands (Mejit, Maloelap, and Majuro) and 80 respondents in Hawaiʻi to further characterize migration decision-making in the context of health and climate change. Multiple workshops are planned for Majuro (summer 2019, spring 2020) and Hawaiʻi (2020) to strengthen existing partnerships providing climate information and aid to the health sector and improve knowledge uptake about climate change among migrant communities throughout the Pacific. On February 18, 2019 the Pacific RISA shared updates on this work at an international seminar “Aspirations and Livelihood Transitions of Migrants from the Pacific to Abroad” held in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, which brought together experts from the US, Japan, and Micronesia to discuss climate change, displacement, and policy recommendations in the Pacific Islands region.