The sea takes their home - Islanders must move

11 December, 2023

A small island in the Caribbean Sea is slowly disappearing. Hundreds of people are now getting ready to flee the rising waters that threaten their homes.

– It is the first island in Latin America from which people have to flee due to sea level rise, says Maribel Pinto from Panama’s climate delegation.

The Kuna are one of Panama’s indigenous peoples and live on islands off the Caribbean side of the country’s coast. Photo: Arnulfo Franco/AP/TT Archive image.

For more than a hundred years, the indigenous Kuna have lived a simple life on the small island of Carti Sugtup off the northern coast of Panama. Here, extreme weather such as floods and storms pose existential threats. And on the horizon, more dark clouds lurk in the wake of climate change.

Tides are already washing over roads and into homes on Carti Sugtup, which is part of a group of low-lying islands that experts say are at risk of being swallowed by the sea by the end of the century.

Now hundreds of islanders are getting ready to move to the mainland where the Panamanian government has built houses where they can restart their lives. The move is delayed but is expected to happen next year, according to Maribel Pinto, deputy head of Panama’s delegation at the COP28 climate conference.

It is the first island in Latin America from which people have to flee due to sea level rise. But there may be more in the future, she tells TT’s correspondent in Dubai.

– We do not force anyone to move, but many feel that it is no longer possible to stay. But they have lived their whole lives with the sea outside the window and now they have to start over and change everything. How will it affect them?

Maribel Pinto from Panama’s delegation at COP28 in Dubai. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Severe drought

Panama, which is slightly smaller than Svealand in Sweden, has coastlines on the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Caribbean Sea to the north. The country is suffering from a historically severe drought – which has shone a light on one of the world’s busiest trade routes.

Cargo ships carrying everything from toys to food have been stuck in queues and face delays of up to a month due to the low water levels restricting traffic in the Panama Canal.

Drought is a growing problem as climate change leads to higher temperatures, and for Panama the situation is exacerbated by the El Niño weather phenomenon. Together, they create problems that extend far beyond delayed deliveries to the US and Europe.

– The drought is hitting food production hard, says Maribel Pinto.

– Agriculture is having a very difficult time right now, people are losing their animals and crops. They lose everything. It is one of the most important sectors for our economy.

For several months, traffic through the Panama Canal has been restricted due to the drought. Photo Arnulfo Franco/AP/TT Archive image.

Wellcome fund

Representatives of the entire world are currently at the UN climate conference COP28, to find ways to try to slow down rampant climate change for two weeks.

For Panama, it was welcome that the meeting could give the green light on the first day to launch the disputed fund for injuries and losses. It will help vulnerable countries tackle climate-related effects already now.

– Now we have to make sure that money comes in and that it does not entail any additional costs for countries that want to use the fund. But it is also important that the big countries reduce their emissions, says Pinto.

– Panama is very vulnerable to climate change. Now it is very dry, but sometimes it also rains extremely heavily. It changes quickly and we have to try to adapt to all the different scenarios at once.

One of the novelties at this year’s climate meeting is the so-called global review, which for the first time takes stock of how the world’s countries are living up to the goals of the Paris Agreement. It is known that far too little is being done – but Pinto hopes that the process will lead to countries raising their ambitions and lowering their emissions.

– A few steps forward are being taken at COP28. Certainly very small, but we have to start somewhere. We have a lot of work ahead of us.

The UN climate summits, COP, are held in different locations each year. COP stands for “Conference of the Parties” and refers to the parties to the UN Climate Convention.

COP28 will be held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from November 30 to December 12.

In the Paris Agreement of 2015, most of the world’s countries agreed to keep the increase in the global average temperature well below 2 degrees, and most preferably below 1.5 degrees, compared to pre-industrial times. This must primarily be done through reduced emissions of greenhouse gases.

In connection with COP28, the first global review (“global stocktake”) of how the countries’ efforts and commitments are in relation to the goals of the Paris Agreement is being completed. It is a reconciliation of how things are going in the fight against climate change and shows that global emissions are not in line with what is required to live up to the Paris Agreement. On the contrary, emissions continue to increase and the window to succeed in limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is rapidly closing.

Panama forms the southeasternmost and narrowest part of the isthmus that connects North America with South America.

Roughly in the middle of the country there is a low land corridor between the mountains. Here, in 1914, the Panama Canal was opened between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The canal is one of the world’s most important waterways.

The climate is tropical, hot and humid.

Panama’s main sources of energy are imported oil-based fuel and domestic hydropower.

Source: Landguiden/UI

Text: Sofia Eriksson/TT
Foto: Arnulfo Franco/AP/TT, Henrik Montgomery/TT,

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