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Panama evacuates coastal island due to rising sea levels

Global coastal communities have been witnessing the effects of climate change unfold right before their eyes. Now, families in Panama are packing up their lives as sea levels rise, making their home island inhabitable.

Still a climate change denier? In light of recent news, it might be time to rethink that.

Off the coast of Panama lies a tiny island named Gardi Sugdub, measuring 366 metres long and 137 meters wide. It is home to an Indigenous community known as the Gunas, who have lived for generations in harmony with the ocean, relying on it for food, income, and leisure.

Now, the waters they’ve been so connected to are threatening to swallow the island whole. The encroaching sea level has become the biggest threat to the Guna’s livelihoods – and experts say it’s all because of climate change.

The Gunas are just one of 63 communities living on 50 islands along Panama’s coastline. All of them, government officials and scientists say, are at risk of becoming climate refugees in the next few decades.

As 300 Guna families prepare for evacuation, an official from Panama’s ministry of housing has told Euronews that some community members have chosen to stay on the island until it becomes impossible to do so.

They cannot and will not be forced to leave by officials.

Though some coastal islands are managing to cope with our planet’s rising waters, scientists say that each one will be affected at different speeds.

Given that islands in Panama’s archipelago are on average only a half-meter above sea level, they have always been particularly vulnerable to strong storms and high winds.

During winter months especially, seawater flooding occurs and enters the homes belonging to Guna residents, despite stormbarriers made with rocks and coral being put in place.

About 20 years ago, the Guna government began contemplating how it would relocate some of its population to the mainland. Initially, this plan was motivated by overcrowding caused by population growth.

Sadly, rising sea levels have pressed fast-forward on this process, with the entire population likely having to depart eventually.

Those leaving Gardi Sugdub now will relocate to the nearest mainland point, where the government has set up a $12 million housing project. Those looking to revisit the island can do so via an 8-minute boat ride from the local port.

Inhabitants from Panama’s archipelago aren’t entirely unique in these devastating circumstances.

Residents on the South Pacific island of Tuvalu have recently come to terms with the harsh realities of climate change after watching their surrounding waters rise at unprecedented rates.

While the loss of their homes, communities, and livelihoods is certainly unfathomable, Tuvaluans are also concerned about losing their unique cultural identity and traditions once they are relocated.

To avoid this, the president of Tuvalu moved to preserve a digital version of the island in the metaverse. The goal is to help future generations of Tuvaluans understand where they come from, even if the island is unvisitable due to being completely underwater.

While most people in the Global North have yet to have their lives upended due to climate change, the consequences for those living in the Global South are already occurring.

Continuing to be apathetic about the climate crisis will see the repercussions catch up to us all eventually, but as many activists have said before: it shouldn’t have to happen to us in order for us to care.