While the retreat from rising seas may seem like a distant, if abysmal, end-of-the-century scenario, it is in fact already taking place in some low-lying island communities. For the Guna (pronounced “Kuna”) people of Panama the abandonment of their ancestral homeland, the San Blas Islands, has become the only option after frequent floods have made their way of life impossible.
While the flooding of the San Blas Islands is partly a consequence of rising sea levels, the Guna are not entirely blameless. Coral reefs that once surrounded and buffered the islands from storm surges and flooding have been destroyed after decades of exploitation (ironically, the Guna mined the reefs to build up the islands). It has been enough, according to Reuters “to submerge the Caribbean islands for days on end”.
The sad tale of the Guna, who are currently managing their retreat to mainland Panama, provides a cautionary tale of how climate change and poor resource management can combine to create disaster. But it isn’t just the direct exploitation of coral that threatens so many similar tropical, predominantly poor, coastal communities around the world. Coral reefs of the sort that once surrounded the San Blas Islands are under threat worldwide from carbon dioxide emissions that, when absorbed by the ocean, make it more acidic. When corals struggle in the more acidic water so too does the kaleidoscopic variety of life that depends on them. These once flourishing paradises may become barren monuments to changing ocean chemistry.
The threat of acidification and the exploitation of coral reefs has implications not only for coastal erosion, as in the case of the Guna, but for the very food security of the planet. Seafood is a primary source of protein for more than a billion of the poorest people on Earth and demands on that resource will only grow as the world population approaches 9 billion by mid-century. Island and coastal nations that depend heavily on fisheries resources are the most threatened by these changes.