We're not Drowning. We're Fighting!

By Canita Swigert

What does climate change really mean for you? Let me tell you what it means for me here in the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. 

First of all, find us on the map – North Pacific Ocean between the Philippines and Hawaii and Australia and Japan.

Found it?

A group of over 1,800 small islands, we are, combined, bigger than the size of the US mainland but we only have 880 square kilometres of land. We have about 175,000 people over the two countries and an additional 60,000 people living overseas in the USA. We know all about migration. Our ancestors navigated here on canoes 4,000 years ago and we have been on the move ever since – moving between small outer islands and main islands or more recently migrating to the USA for work and other opportunities. 

These days climate change and its first cousin, disaster risk reduction are all the rage, along with good old "resilience, preparedness, adaptation and coping strategies." 

But in our part of the world there is nothing abstract about it as we are living at the leading edge of global climate change. 

Yes, rising sea levels are having a catastrophic effect on our low lying atoll communities. Sapuwafik is one such island and it is facing a litany of environmental challenges. Coastal erosion from higher tides; salt water intrusion into cropland affecting food security and contaminating precious fresh water lens; more severe storms and drought; ocean acidification damaging the fragile marine eco-systems that we depend on – and the list goes on. With all these changes, it is getting harder to get by in Sapuwafik these days, and as such all our young people are leaving to the main islands or to the USA. You see, we have a special historical relationship with the USA here defined by a Compact of Free Association which allows citizens of the FSM and RMI to move freely to the United States without visa restrictions. Once they go, it is very rare for them to come back. With all our young energetic people leaving the outer islands, it makes it harder for these places to find dynamic and creative solutions to new challenges.

The truth is that here in the Pacific Islands we did not cause any of this and here we are facing the full brunt. Some Pacific nations are exploring options for all their citizens to take refuge in other countries. Some are exploring what legal rights to national territory they would hold in the absence of any land or people residing in it. In this sense on the international stage, our Pacific communities are often paraded as passive victims of richer nations who can only be saved by these same richer nations. I grew up listening to this rhetoric. Yes, we are small and yes, we are vulnerable but we are certainly not passive. We come from a tradition of proud warriors, a tradition of adaptation to harsh environments and a determination in the face of hardship – “We are not Drowning, we are Fighting!” 

This was the theme of a recent joint action across the Pacific led by 350.org in which I participated. The photo above shows a Mwoakillese Warrior dance that was performed for the first time in the water representing the very different challenges faced by these modern warriors. It is a fitting image for how I see the work we are doing with IOM in working on climate change – to harness our ancient traditions and strengths in the fight to adapt to a changing climate.   

The IOM CADRE Program (Climate Adaptation, Disaster Risk Reduction, and Education) is empowering 8th and 9th Grade students across these two countries by teaching them about climate change and what they can do about it. It is their right to be properly informed about the greatest challenge their generation will face. It is our youth that will inherit this world and come up with the creativity required for successful adaptation strategies. Where possible, we are tapping into traditional knowledge and sharing with the new generation ancient coping strategies. Schools are the heart of communities, so the CADRE Program is also working with vulnerable communities to help them prepare for the effects of climate change and increased risk of natural disasters. IOM, in partnership with government and conservation organizations, is facilitating communities to identify the risks they are facing and begin the process of developing local early action plans. A number of these plans will then be implemented over the course of the project.


Canita Swigert is a Disaster, Mitigation, Relief and Reconstruction Specialist for IOM