United States

Island Near US Prepares For Evacuation Due To Rising Sea Levels

A tiny island near the USA is preparing for evacuation due to rising sea levels. About 300 families on Gardi Sugdub, an island off Panama’s Caribbean coast, are moving to the mainland.

This is the first of many such relocations expected along Panama’s coasts due to climate change. Photo: AP

A small island off Panama’s Caribbean coast is seeing a dramatic change as about 300 families prepare to leave their homes. The island, Gardi Sugdub, has been home to generations of the Indigenous Guna people who have lived a life connected to the sea and tourism. However, next week they will move to the mainland, trading their island life for solid ground.

The Gunas are not leaving by choice but out of necessity. Gardi Sugdub is the first of 63 communities along Panama’s coasts that will likely be forced to relocate due to rising sea levels in the coming decades.

On a recent day, residents of the island rowed or used motors to fish, while children, some in school uniforms and others in colorful traditional textiles called “molas,” made their way to school through narrow dirt streets. Nadín Morales, 24, expressed sadness about leaving. "We’re a little sad because we’re leaving behind the homes we’ve known all our lives, our relationship with the sea, where we fish, where we bathe, and where tourists come. But the sea is sinking the island little by little."

Photo: AP

An official from Panama’s Ministry of Housing noted that some residents have chosen to stay until it becomes unsafe, but authorities will not force them to leave.

Gardi Sugdub is one of about 50 populated islands in the Guna Yala territory. It is roughly 400 yards long and 150 yards wide, with many short docks where residents tie up their boats. Each year, especially during the windy months of November and December, water floods the streets and homes, worsened by climate change causing stronger storms and rising sea levels.

The Gunas have attempted to protect their island with rocks, pilings, and coral, but seawater continues to invade. "Lately, I’ve seen climate change has had a major impact," said Morales. "The tide now reaches levels it didn’t before, and the heat is unbearable."

The Guna’s autonomous government decided two decades ago that the island was getting too crowded and they should consider leaving. Climate change accelerated this decision, explained Evelio López, a 61-year-old teacher on the island. He plans to move with his family to the new site on the mainland, developed at a cost of $12 million, featuring concrete houses on paved streets just over a mile from the port.

Leaving the island is "a great challenge," said López. "More than 200 years of our culture is from the sea. Leaving this island means leaving the sea, the economic activities there, and now moving to solid ground, in the forest. We’ll see what the long-term result is."

Steven Paton, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s physical monitoring program in Panama, stated, "This move is a direct consequence of climate change through rising sea levels." The islands, on average, are only half a meter above sea level, and as levels rise, the Gunas will likely have to abandon all their islands by the end of the century.

Global coastal areas are experiencing similar issues. Last year, a coastal community in Mexico moved inland due to storms eroding their homes. Governments are taking action, from Venice in Italy to coastal communities in New Zealand.

A study by Panama’s Environmental Ministry, with support from universities in Panama and Spain, estimated that by 2050, Panama could lose about 2.01% of its coastal territory to rising sea levels. Panama plans to spend about $1.2 billion to relocate around 38,000 residents at risk from rising sea levels in the near future, said Ligia Castro, climate change director for the Environmental Ministry.