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Panama prepares to evacuate island as sea levels rise

Photo: Matias Delacroix Associated Press A man paddles near the island of Gardi Sugdub where a cruise ship floats in the San Blas archipelago, off the Caribbean coast of Panama, Sunday, May 26, 2024.

Matías Delacroix – Associated Press and Juan Zamorano – Associated Press

Published at 10:20 p.m.

  • Americas

On a small island off the coast of Panama, around 300 families are packing their belongings in anticipation of drastic change. Generations of Gunas who grew up on Gardi Sugdub in a life dedicated to the sea and tourism will leave their island next week and settle on the mainland.

The Gunas de Gardi Sugdub are the first of 63 communities along Panama’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts that government officials and scientists expect to relocate due to rising sea levels in the coming decades.

“We’re a little sad because we’re going to leave behind the homes we’ve known all our lives, the relationship with the sea, where we fish, where we bathe and where the tourists come, but the sea is sinking the island little by little,” said Nadín Morales, 24, who is preparing to move with her mother, boyfriend and uncle.

An official with Panama's Housing Ministry said some people had decided to stay on the island until it was no longer safe, without revealing a specific number. The authorities will not force them to leave, he added on condition of anonymity.

Gardi Sugdub is one of around 50 populated islands of the archipelago of the Guna Yala territory. It is only about 400 meters long and 150 meters wide.

Every year, especially when the strong winds raise the sea in November and December, the water fills the streets and enters houses. Climate change not only causes sea levels to rise, but it also warms the oceans and thus causes more violent storms.

The Gunas tried to strengthen the edge of the island with rocks, stilts and coral, but the water continues to flow.

“Lately, I have seen that climate change has had a major impact,” Morales said. Now the tide has reached an all-time high and the heat is unbearable. »

The Guna Autonomous Government decided 20 years ago that they should consider leaving the island, but at the time it was because it was becoming too crowded. The effects of climate change have accelerated that thinking, according to Evelio López, a 61-year-old teacher who plans to move with relatives to the new site on the mainland that the government developed at a cost of $12 million. The concrete houses are located on a grid of cobblestone streets carved out of the lush tropical jungle just over two kilometers from the port, where an eight-minute boat ride takes them to Gardi Sugdub.

A recent study carried out by the Ministry of Environment of Panama, with the support of universities in the country and in Spain, estimates that by 2050, Panama will lose approximately 2.01% of its coastal territory due to the sea ​​level rise.

Panama believes it will cost about $1.2 billion to relocate the estimated 38,000 residents who will struggle with the rise in sea levels in the short and medium term, said Ligia Castro, who deals with climate change at the Ministry of the Environment.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116