Climate, Health, and Migration from the Marshall Islands


Flooding in the Marshall Islands. Photo:

As one of the lowest-lying island nation-states in the world, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is acutely vulnerable to sea-level rise, flooding, and the associated intrusion of saltwater into crucial freshwater supplies. Persistent drought is further affecting agricultural production and access to drinking water.

The East-West Center is collaborating in the Marshall Islands Climate and Migration Project, focusing on climate-induced migration in the RMI. A $477,079 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) supports this International Research and Applications Project (IRAP), which is designed to conduct international, decision-based research on climate-sensitive health risks in partnership with the Center's Pacific RISA (Regional Integrated Science and Assessment) program.

Within the Marshall Islands there are substantial migration flows between islands, particularly from outer islands to the capital Majuro, Ebeye and to the US military base Kwajalein. In addition, many Marshallese are migrating to other countries, particularly to Hawai'i and to the mainland United States. The number of Marshallese residing in the United States has rapidly risen over the past two decades, from 7,000 in the year 2000 to 22,000 in 2010. Today nearly one-third of all Marshallese reside in the United States.

The factors triggering human migration are complex and often intertwined, making it difficult to pinpoint and address specific causes. For example, changes in ecosystems due to climate change can cause health problems or food insecurity, which may have greater consequences in communities with political, social, or economic tension. In surveys conducted under this project, both Marshallese living in the RMI and those living in Hawai'i mentioned better access to healthcare, education, and jobs as motivations for migration. Most respondents also expressed concern about the effects of climate change.

Decision makers at local and state levels in both the Marshall Islands and the United States—for example those who design policy related to immigrant access to services—need information to better understand the factors contributing to current migration and to anticipate possible future impacts of climate on human migration. This project will expand the current state of knowledge about vulnerability to climate change in the Marshall Islands, particularly where climate stressors lead to health impacts. It aims to improve the use of climate information to better serve migrant communities from the Marshall Islands, informing health professionals, policymakers, and community organizations in both sending and receiving locations about the climate-related health risks that migrants are experiencing now or are expected to face in the future.

The Pacific RISA program is a collaboration among the East-West Center, University of Hawai‘i International Pacific Research Institute, University of Hawai‘i Water Resources Research Center, University of Hawai‘i School of Law, University of Hawai‘i Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, University of Hawai‘i Department of Geography, National Weather Service Pacific ENSO Applications Center, NOAA National Center for Environmental Information, Pacific Islands Climate Adaptation Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey, and various community groups and government agencies throughout the region.

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See all current East-West Center Research Projects.