Marshall Islands navigating climate, Covid, compact
By Sylvester Kajur
Majuro—On May 1, 1979, the Marshall Islands adopted its Constitution. Forty-three years later, the Marshallese celebrated the nation’s 43rd Constitution Day with the usual festivities that attempted to drown out the lurking gloom.
The event featured a parade, music, games, speeches and a canoe race. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, except that the celebration took place under the theme of “lujaron,” the Marshallese word for “courageous in rough times.” This year’s theme was echoed in speeches and discussions throughout the day.
“We must sacrifice ourselves in order to defend democracy, good governance and human rights as well as uphold our proud traditional heritage, which are the very core and fundamental pillars of our republic,” President David Kabua said.
He also issued frank warnings about the Marshall Islands’ future. “Fifty-seven years from now, our children and grandchildren will be celebrating 100 years of our Constitution, but where?” Kabua asked.
“How can our low-lying islands survive from the impact of climate change? Can we elevate our islands by a few meters? Can we still survive as a republic when our lands have been completely submerged?”
According to a report released in October 2021 by the Marshall Islands government and the World Bank, rising sea levels in the atoll nation are projected to imperil 40 percent of existing buildings in Majuro.
The report, titled “Adapting to Rising Sea Levels in Marshall Islands,” painted alarming visual projections with 96 percent of the capital city at risk of frequent flooding triggered by climate change. Climate experts recommended adaptation measures to address inundation over the next 100 years.
Besides the climate crisis, Kabua also touched on other key sectors. He stressed the need to raise the nation’s educational standards and strengthen the economy to prevent the outflow of people to the U.S.
Kabua said hard work and diligence, especially during rough times, will ensure national continuity and cultural survival.
The president's speech also discussed a topic that's been the talk-of-the-town lately: health care.
The Covid-19 situation in the Marshall Islands is relatively stable, with 17 border cases, zero deaths and zero community transmissions as of May 23. A total of 64,048 vaccine doses have been administered in the nation with a population of close to 60,000.
There is speculation that the nation’s borders will reopen soon, but the government has yet to make an official announcement about its plans.
A source told the Pacific Island Times that the government is “moving in that direction” and creating a roadmap. “We’ve been in a state of emergency for over two years and the status quo is no longer working,” the official said. “The world has moved on and is living with Covid-19, and so we have to.”
Details about the reopening plans are scarce, but the Marshallese will expect more vigorous testing, and adjustments at their workplaces to help curb the spread in the community. “We need to start thinking about managing the virus when it reaches our community,” the official said. “It’s inevitable that it will come.”
In his speech, Kabua discussed the need to repair and build Majuro and Ebeye hospitals, and beef up medical supplies at the hospitals to minimize patients' referral to off-shore facilities.
Alongside these challenges are the stalled negotiations of the Compact of Free Association with the United States. Some of the treaty’s economic provisions are set to expire in 2023. The hardly resolved nuclear testing issue is a key sticking point of the compact talks.
In March, several members of the U.S Congress introduced a resolution offering an apology to the people of the Marshall Islands who suffered from nuclear testing and the disposal of radioactive nuclear waste.
“A formal apology is long overdue to the Republic of the Marshall Islands for the harmful legacy of U.S. nuclear testing,” said Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA).
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) also pressed the Biden administration: “I would very much like all of you to get back to me as to why we cannot support formal apology,” she said. “I'd say that it’s long past time.”
But still, the talks remain stalled even though the U.S. can ill afford to lose its strategic advantage in the region where China has picked allies off Taiwan in recent years. The U.S. refused to engage the Marshallese on claims for environmental and health damage caused by dozens of nuclear tests it carried out in the 1940s and 1950s, including a huge thermonuclear blast on Bikini Atoll.
Some believe an acknowledgment has been made, citing an agreement with the Marshall Islands that refers to a “full settlement” for all claims related to this testing. The settlement included a payment of $150 million.
For the Marshallese people, it’s about historical justice. Hundreds were displaced as a result of nuclear testing. “We want to be able to live in our backyard and enjoy our life here,” Rongelap Mayor James Matayoshi said last year.
It looks like a difficult year ahead for the Marshall Islands with the biggest challenges yet to come. But the message from the president is clear: be courageous and have no fear.