Panama Prepares to Evacuate First Island Due to Sea Level Rise

    The government has developed a new site on the mainland for the inhabitants

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    The Gunas, the indigenous people of the small island of GardiSugdub, are the first of 63 communities along Panama’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts to be evacuated due to rising sea levels in the coming decades.

    An official from Panama’s Housing Ministry said, however, that some people have decided to stay on the island, without revealing a specific number. Authorities will not force them to leave, the official added on condition of anonymity.

    GardiSugdub is one of about 50 inhabited islands in the archipelago of the GunaYala territory. It is only 366 meters long and 137 meters wide. Seen from above, it looks like an oval surrounded by dozens of short piers where residents moor their boats.

    Every year, especially when strong winds cause heavy waves in November and December, water fills the streets and enters the houses. Climate change not only causes sea levels to rise, but also warms the oceans and thus causes stronger storms.The Guns have tried over the years to fortify the island’s edge with rocks, sea walls and coral, but the seawater keeps coming in.

    Two crowded island

    Guna’s autonomous government decided two decades ago that it should consider abandoning the island. However, at the time, the reason was that the island was becoming too crowded. The effects of climate change have accelerated the process.

    The government of Panama has developed for the inhabitants of GardiSugdub a new site on the mainland at a cost of $12 million. The concrete houses sit on a grid of paved streets carved out of the lush rainforest just over two kilometers from the port, where an eight-minute boat ride takes them to GardiSugdub.

    Consequences of climate change

    “The next move is a direct consequence of climate change due to rising sea levels. The islands are on average only half a meter above sea level, and as that level rises, sooner or later the Guns will have to abandon all the islands, almost certainly by the end of the century or even sooner. Every coastline in the world is affected by this at different rates,” said Stephen Peyton, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Physical Monitoring Program in Panama.

    Residents of a small coastal community in Mexico moved inland last year after storms continued to ravage their homes. Governments are being forced to take action, from the Italian city of Venice to coastal communities in New Zealand.

    A recent study by the Climate Change Directorate of Panama’s Ministry of Environment, with support from universities in Panama and Spain, estimated that by 2050 Panama will lose about 2.01 percent of its coastal territory due to sea level rise.

    “Our calculations suggest that it will cost about $1.2 million to relocate some 38 residents who will face sea level rise in the short and medium term,” said Ligia Castro, director of climate change at the Ministry of Environment.

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