“We’re Going to Sink”: Climate Change Forces Hundreds to Abandon Caribbean Island Home

By: Georgia | Last updated: Oct 27, 2023

Carti Sugtupu, a small Caribbean island situated off the north coast of Panama, is grappling with a dire reality.

As the perilous rise of sea levels threatens to submerge the already crowded living spaces, hundreds are preparing to abandon their ancestral home. The upcoming slides delve deeper into the situation unfolding in this tight-knit community.

Homes At the Water's Edge

On this small Caribbean island, hundreds of houses are packed closely together, with several extending over the sea on stilts.

Advertisement

Source: Getty Images

The settlement occupies an area equivalent to five football fields, making space a rare commodity. With the rising water levels, these cramped conditions are increasingly becoming untenable, prompting serious considerations of relocation.

The Island's Indigenous Community

Carti Sugtupu is home to a community of fewer than 2000 indigenous residents. These individuals rely on fishing and harvesting crops such as cassava and plantains to sustain themselves.

Advertisement

Source: Getty Images

Additionally, they engage in traditional textile production and operate small-scale tourism ventures. Despite the beauty surrounding them, life is challenging, with little access to essential services.

Facing Climate Change Head-On

Life on the island is far from easy. Intense heat coupled with overcrowded living conditions has exacerbated the inhabitants’ daily struggles.

Advertisement

Source: Getty Images

Now, the looming threat of climate change-induced sea level rise poses an additional, possibly insurmountable, challenge, endangering the viability of their already precarious existence

Experts Weigh In: A Grim Forecast

The situation in Carti Sugtupu is gradually worsening. Climate experts anticipate that the rising sea levels will engulf this island and numerous others in the Guna Yala region by century’s end.

Advertisement

Source: Getty Images

Forty-nine of these islands are populated, and most sit only a few feet above sea level, putting them at significant risk of being submerged.

Voices from the Ground

Residents like Magdalena Martinez, a retired teacher, acknowledge the grim reality unfolding before them. Martinez, while embroidering a traditional “mola” cloth, lamented, “We think we’re going to sink, we know it’s going to happen.”

Source: Getty Images

These firsthand accounts reveal a community bracing itself for inevitable change, trying to hold onto hope and spirit amidst uncertainty.

Advertisement

Relocation: A Necessary Sacrifice

Moving to mainland Panama presents a bittersweet rescue route. While it promises safety, it also threatens to alter their way of life drastically.

Source: Getty Images

As Martinez articulates, relocating will certainly change their lifestyle, yet she firmly believes it will not change their inherent spirit or habits, which remain deeply rooted in their island culture.

Advertisement

Living Conditions on Carti Sugtupu

The current living conditions on Carti Sugtupu are harsh. The lack of drinking water means residents have to collect it from rivers or buy it from the mainland, a task that necessitates boat trips.

Source: Getty Images

Electricity is a luxury, with most homes receiving power for only a few hours daily. Furthermore, sanitation facilities are communal and scarce, with residents relying on sea-perched latrines.

Advertisement

Government's Relocation Plan

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, the government has announced plans to move families to a newly-built mainland settlement.

Source: Getty Images

This initiative is expected to be executed either by the end of the current year or the start of 2024.

Advertisement

Features of the New Settlement

The government’s relocation plan entails the construction of 300 homes to accommodate an estimated 1,500 residents.

Source: Kaja Reichardt/Unsplash

Each household will have access to 3,200 square feet of space, complete with essential amenities like drinking water and electricity.

Advertisement

Hopeful Residents Look to the Future

Despite the looming challenges, residents like Braulio Navarro harbor aspirations for a better quality of life on the mainland.

Source: Getty Images

Navarro eagerly anticipates amenities such as uninterrupted electricity, fans, and air conditioning, envisaging significant benefits for his family as they transition to their new home.

Advertisement

Facing Global Climate Change

The unfolding scenario in Carti Sugtupu is a sobering reminder of the wider global climate crisis.

Source: Getty Images

Rising sea levels, a direct consequence of climate change, are forcing communities to abandon ancestral homes, with scientists predicting more widespread occurrences as the century progresses.

Advertisement