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Low-lying atoll faces rising sea

By Giff Johnson MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Nov. 1, 2010) – A Pacific atoll that rises barely one meter above sea level is seeking $20 million in international donor funding to launch construction of three miles of seawalls to protect its most vulnerable shoreline from sea level rise and flooding.

"We want to prevent erosion and stop flooding," said Marshall Islands United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller who was in Majuro last week to move climate change funding plans forward. This nation of 29 coral atolls and five single islands stretches across about 800,000 square kilometers (500,000 square miles) of Pacific ocean but has only about 116 sq. kilometers (72 square miles) of dry land. And virtually all of that is not more than a meter above the high tide mark.

Muller said the government is asking donors to put up climate change mitigation funding to help his country forestall floods like the one that hit the eastern shore of Majuro Atoll, the capital, in December 2008, causing several million dollars in damage and forcing dozens of islanders into temporary shelters.

The plan is to combine building a more than three-mile-long seawall along the leeward coast of Majuro Atoll for shore protection with land filling small ocean side bays to increase landmass as a buffer against rising sea levels and high waves during storms. Nearly half of the country’s population of 55,000 live in Majuro, in homes few of which are more than 10 meters from the ocean — and many are considerably closer — on this narrow necklace of coral islands.

In December 2008, exceptionally high tides hit at the same time as ocean waves surged to inundate many parts of Majuro’s eastern coastline. This area, targeted for seawall protection, takes the brunt of waves rolling across the Pacific with nothing in the 3,540 kilometers between Hawaii and Majuro to slow them before they blast into the coral reef a few meters off-shore from the low-lying islands.

From his U.N. office, Muller has been pushing access to billions of dollars in promised climate change aid for vulnerable countries. But, he said, not much of this pledged money has flowed to countries like his that need it.

"We have only a short window of opportunity for accessing these funds," he said Friday. "The money pledged is only for two-to-three years. We need to move fast."

During his visit in Majuro with other Marshall Islands ambassadors from the United States, Asia and the Pacific, Muller told government leaders that the response needed from them to tap into international aid for climate change mitigation is "too slow."

"The message of the ambassadors to all levels of government is that things are moving too slow," Muller said.

He said grant writers in Majuro are now working on proposals seeking international aid for shoreline protection, food security and agriculture projects, and solar energy systems to reduce use of fossil fuels, even though the Marshall Islands’ contribution to global carbon levels is negligible.

Muller said the $20 million is an "initial" amount to get the shoreline protection work going. But he said it will take additional funding to complete the three-mile plan.

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