Since 1948, Kili Island in the Marshall Islands has been home to many of the families of displaced people from Bikini Atoll. In recent years, the island has seen increased flooding and an airstrip that is often awash or muddy. As a result, in August, 2015, the Kili/Bikini/Ejit Council requested assistance from the US government with relocation of the population. Follows is an interview with former Bikini Liaison Officer Jack Niedenthal by Radio New Zealand on climate change as it pertains to Kili. You can read or listen to the transcript of the interview…
Bikini islanders homeless again
It’s getting to the point where people are tired of having water in their living rooms and trying to deal with the waves and the water coming over the island.
The Bikini Island community in the Marshall Islands, displaced by nuclear testing seventy years ago is now appealing to the United States for help to find a new home. Their home for many years has been Kili Island which is being affected by sea level rise, repeated king tide flooding and storm surges. The former Trust Liaison Officer for the people of Bikini, Jack Niedenthal (who resigned his position in June, 2016), told Jenny Meyer the US moved the community several times in the 1940s to inhospitable islands until they settled on Kili Island which he says is now like the canary in the climate change coal mine.
JACK NIEDENTHAL: Finally they decided on Kili because the people of Bikini really wanted their political freedom, they didn’t want to live on anyone else’s land. Kili was public land. So they were moved there in 1948. And that’s were they’ve pretty much been since the US began testing nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands, a total of 67 weapons but 23 of them were on Bikini and 20 of those weapons were hydrogen bombs, so they haven’t been able to go back.
JENNY MEYER: So what’s happening now? I understand that Kili now, has become even more vulnerable and less inhabitable because of the effects of climate change. And there’s a request or an appeal to the US Government to actually help try and find a safer home for these people who have been displaced?
JN: You have to understand that Kili Island is a single island. It’s not an atoll like most of the places here where people live. So for six months of the year you can’t fish. The Bikinians have always considered Kili like a prison. And what’s happened over the last four years, some people look at some of the pictures from Kili and think that this is a one time event. Well it’s happened every year since 2011, the island has been inundated by waves, and not just a little bit. I mean there’s pictures of them wading through water on roads in the middle of their island. And this year they became very concerned because in the previous years it was only during the king tides in February and March when there’s one big tide every year. This year it happened in January and February and there was a storm recently that also blew water up onto the island. So it’s getting to the point where people are tired of having water in their living rooms and trying to deal with the waves and the water coming over the island. It broke the sea wall this time. So what they’ve done is they’ve passed two resolutions. One resolution is what we’re calling Plan B that will enable us to use our resettlement trust fund that was given to us, US$90million in the early ’90s which was basically to take care of people where they are now and try to try to do some clean up on Bikini. We want to be able to use that outside of the Marshall Islands because right now we can’t. And the second resolution which is even more important is, we really believe that US should pay for any kind of movement of the people of Bikini from Kili because they were the ones that put them there. The Bikinians didn’t move there on their own. They were put there by the US Government. And now they feel that they shouldn’t have to pay for this out of their very valuable trust funds which they use to survive on from day to day. They would like the US to come in and help them financially and also figure out where to go. We don’t feel like it’s up to us to figure this out. The US has to come in and since they made these promises to Bikinians many years ago that they would be like the ‘Children of America’, the Bikinians just want them to live up to their promise and help them.
JM: So essentially they’re not only nuclear refugees, they’re climate refugees? So what are the options in terms of where they could go? Is there somewhere else in the Marshall Islands group? Or are they looking to go to America? And can you just say how many people we’re talking about here?
JN: Well there’s about 600 to 700 people on Kili right now. And we had three hearings. We had one hearing on Majuro where there’s many Bikinians. And we had one hearing on Ejat Island in Majuro Atoll which is exclusively people of Bikini. And then last Friday we went down to Kili Island and had a hearing there to explain to people what we’re trying to do here. It’s very depressing. Because even though Kili is not a great place but still it’s been home to these people for 70 years. And any time people have to move on mass from a place, it’s a horrible thing to even think about. You know we already have communities in the US, in Arkansas and in Oregon and places like that. Some people are talking about maybe figuring out a way to move some people there. Other people have talked about places here in the Marshall Islands. But the very tricky part about that is, if you moved somewhere here in the Marshall Islands, you’re going to be living on someone else’s land. And that takes away a lot of your political freedom. I don’t know exactly if that’s an option. But we just want the US to help us look into this. We feel like it’s their problem.
Jack Niedenthal says Bikini islanders are really starting to feel depressed and anxious as they wait and hope to hear from the United States administration before the next king tides come.