Atoll islands and climate change: disappearing States?

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  • 2012•03•01

    Lilian Yamamoto and Miguel Esteban

    Atoll islands and climate change: disappearing States?

    Photo: Blogtrotters

    The concept of disappearing lands, though present in the human consciousness due to mythological tales such as that of Atlantis, is perhaps not being given the full consideration it deserves. While the possibility of “disappearing States” has been recognized since the late 1980s, the international community is making slow progress on issues regarding preservation of statehood and the future status of inhabitants of such States. This article by two UNU Institute for Advanced Studies researchers (one current, one former) summarizes a working paper in which they examine questions of long-term survival for atoll island States that could become submerged in the course of the next century due to sea-level rise and coastal erosion exacerbated by stronger tropical cyclones.


    Climatologists admit that the meteorological effects of climate change cannot be adequately predicted for many areas. There is a general consensus, however, that any further global warming will bring with it a further sea-level rise. As a result, some island States might lose one of the basic requirements to be a State: their own territory. This potential problem raises a number of questions regarding the sovereignty of these islands and the future status of their current inhabitants.

    Atolls are islands made from dead coral, enclosing a central lagoon and surrounded by an annular coral reef ecosystem. They are considered to be highly vulnerable, as the highest point on these islands often is only a few metres above sea level. It is worth noting that very little of the coastal erosion that has so far occurred around atoll islands can be attributed to climate change. Most of the causes behind the erosion to date are, nonetheless, anthropogenic, where interference with the delicate long-term sediment transport balance of the islands can dramatically alter the shoreline.

    A case in point is the disappearance of some atoll islands in Tuvalu that is often cited as a climate change problem, while there is some evidence that shows that many changes in the coastline are due to dredging and other alterations during World War II by the American military. However, a rise in sea level due to climate change, combined with an increase in coral mortality (due to increases in sea surface temperatures and salinity) and a potential increase in tropical cyclone intensity, could alter the long-term equilibrium of these islands and eventually render them uninhabitable.

    To prevent this, entire sections of low-lying islands could be protected from the effects of tropical cyclones and rising waters by the usage of sea dykes, in a similar way to what happens in the Netherlands. This would be costly, however, as in the case of Okinotorishima where the Japanese government has already spent ¥29.3 billion protecting two rocks.

    However, it is not clear whether small islands have the financial resources necessary to implement such costly schemes, and the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes that “the costs of overall infrastructure and settlement protection are a significant proportion of GDP, and well beyond the financial means of most small island States”. It has been estimated that a temporary seawall for one Marshall Island atoll, for example, would cost US$100 million, more than twice the wealth the country produces annually. Therefore, the creation of such protection works could ultimately prove to be unsustainable. Other island States, such as Tuvalu or Kiribati, are poorer than, say, the Maldives, and would find it even more difficult to attempt such a scheme.

    The disappearance of islands and sovereignty

    The question of what the status of an island State would be if its entire territory were to be submerged is unclear. This is an essential problem, as it would not only determine the island State’s ability to continue utilizing the resources that had previously been within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) — a sea zone in which a State has special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources (see Part 5 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; UNCLOS) — but also from the point of view of preserving the cultural identity of its citizens.

    Inhabitants of island States have a strong connection to their islands, and even as some appear resigned to the need to leave their islands, they are hoping to periodically return to them in order to have a connection to their heritage. Their right to dispose of their own wealth would also be violated, a right provided by Art. 1(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.”

    The loss of all the territory of a State would result in the deprivation of a means of subsistence for the population. In addition,  if their governments do not make arrangements to keep their institutions working, the population could become stateless.

    Indeed, it could be argued that atoll island States and cultures can never be satisfactorily compensated for the loss of their physical bases. The IPCC notes how the populations on many small islands have “long developed and maintained unique lifestyles, adapted to their natural environment”.

    Alternative solutions

    If an island becomes an uninhabited rock that is still above sea level, it falls within Art. 121 (3) of UNCLOS: the State that previously laid claim to it would not be entitled to an EEZ, but would still keep the sovereignty over the rock. Eventually, if the island State was to physically lose all the islands that make up its territory (through a combination of coastal erosion and sea level rise), it would find itself in a situation that has not occurred in modern history. The island State would probably lose its sovereignty, as normally under international law a State requires a defined territory, as stipulated by the Montevideo Convention.

    It is interesting to note, however, how Art. 6 of the United Nations Charter provides that a State can only be expelled for persistently breaking the principles of the Charter and after recommendations from the United Nations Security Council. Thus, it would be up to some countries to stop recognizing these States and break off diplomatic relations, though non-recognition by other UN Member States does not necessarily lead to expulsion from the UN (such as Turkey not recognizing Cyprus).

    Even if most countries decided to break off diplomatic relations, the government of these island States could preserve an international status even if no longer classed as a normal State. In fact, the concept of sovereign entities without a territory is already perceived and recognized by some States, such as the Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta.

    International law expert Alfred Soons suggests that another possibility would be for the State to take over, by treaty of cession, the territory belonging to a different State (for example, by purchasing a certain area of land, as in the case of Alaska). Furthermore, Rosemary Rayfuse cites precedents for responding to environmental catastrophes, such as in the 1870s when Icelanders, after a volcanic eruption, were granted a large piece of land by the Canadian government as well as guaranteed rights as citizens of Canada and Iceland.

    However, currently a treaty of cession does not assure that the acquired territory will belong to the same State that is acquiring it, as the State that sells the territory may not recognize the portion of land as a territory of the purchasing State. Thus, it is more likely that the State that is ceding the territory will attempt to become a successor of the island State that was submerged.

    Among all these discussions of possible solutions, the States that are going to be affected are assessing different possibilities, such as relocation of their populations. Maldives will begin to divert a portion of the country’s billion-dollar annual tourist revenue into buying a new homeland. In order to consolidate the voices of small island developing States to address global climate change, 43 States have formed the Alliance of Small Island States.

    It is important that the questions faced by these States are inserted into the current talks on climate change, and that they be given proper attention in the coming years, as they would have not only consequences for atoll island States but also for many other countries that will probably lose land to rising waters. Island States should press for recognition of the consequences that climate change will have on their population.

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    This article is based on a working paper, downloadable from the right sidebar, that gives a number of possible scenarios of what could happen to atoll islands, and discusses each according to the current Law of the Sea. The paper also proposes remediation strategies for these States to attempt to continue claiming Exclusive Economic Zones around them, which could be lost if they became “barren rocks” or disappeared under the sea.