America’s first climate refugees: “It’s happening now … The village is sinking”
One afternoon in the waning days of winter, the most powerful man in Newtok, Alaska, hopped on a plane and flew 1,000 miles to plead for the survival of his village. Stanley Tom, Newtok’s administrator, had a clear purpose for his trip: find the money to move the village on the shores of the Bering Sea out of the way of an approaching disaster caused by climate change.
Newtok was rapidly losing ground to erosion. The land beneath the village was falling into the river. Tom needed money for bulldozers to begin preparing a new site for the village on higher ground. He needed funds for an airstrip. He came back from his meetings in Juneau, the Alaskan state capital, with expressions of sympathy — but nothing in the way of the cash he desperately needed. “It’s really complicated,” he said. “There are a lot of obstacles.”
Those obstacles — financial, legal, and a supremely frustrating bureaucratic process — had slowed down the move for so long that some in Newtok, which is about 400 miles south of the Bering Strait that separates the U.S. from Russia, feared they would be stuck as the village went down around them, houses swallowed up by the river.
“It’s really alarming,” said Tom, slumped in an armchair a few hours after his return to the village. “I have a hard time sleeping, and I’m getting up early in the morning. I am worried about it every day.”
The uncertainty was tearing the village apart. It also began to turn the village against Tom.
Over the winter, a large group of villagers decided that their administrator was not up to the job. By the time he returned from this particular trip, the dissidents had voted to replace the village council and to sack Tom — a vote that he ignored.
“The way I see it, we need someone who knows how to do the work,” said Katherine Charles, one of Tom’s most vocal critics. “I feel like we are being neglected. We are still standing here and we don’t know when we are going to move. For years now we have been frustrated. I have to ask myself: Why are we even still here?”
It’s been more than a decade since Tom took charge of running Newtok, and leading the village out of climate disaster to higher ground.
The ground beneath Newtok is disappearing. Natural erosion has accelerated due to climate change, with large areas of land lost to the Ninglick River each year. A study by the Army Corps of Engineers [PDF] found the highest point in the village would be below water level by 2017. The proximity of the threat to Newtok means that its villages are likely to be America’s first climate refugees.
Officials in Anchorage say Tom has worked tirelessly to move the village out of the way of a rampaging river. Among the relatively small circle of bureaucrats and lawyers who concern themselves with the problems of small and remote indigenous Alaskan villages, the Newtok administrator has a stellar reputation. He has won leadership awards from Native American groups in the rest of the country.
Tom said he hoped to make a big push this summer, acquiring heavy equipment that locals could use to begin moving some of the existing houses over to the new village site at Mertarvik nine miles to the south.
“It’s really happening right now. The village is sinking and flooding and eroding,” he said. He said he was planning to move his own belongings to the new village site this summer — and that villagers should start doing the same.
But Tom, despite his lobbying missions to Juneau and strong reputation with government officials, has failed to inject federal and state officials with that same sense of urgency.
Melting permafrost, sea-level rise, erosion — these are some of the worst consequences of climate change for Alaska. But none of those elements in Newtok’s slow destruction are recognized as disasters under existing legislation.
That means there is no designated pot of money set aside for those affected communities — unlike cities or towns destroyed by floods or tornadoes.
“We weren’t thinking of climate change when federal disaster relief legislation was passed,” said Robin Bronen, a human rights lawyer in Anchorage who has made a dozen visits to Newtok. “Our legal system is not set up. The institutions that we have created to respond to disasters are not up to the task of responding to climate change.”
In Bronen’s view, Congress needed to rewrite existing disaster legislation to take account of climate change. Communities needed to be able to access those disaster funds — if not to rebuild in place, which is not feasible in Newtok’s case, then to move.
The authorities also had responsibility under the treaty agreements with indigenous Alaskan tribes to guarantee the safety and well-being of indigenous communities, she argued.
“This is completely a human rights issue,” Bronen said. “When you are talking about a people who have done the least to contribute to our climate crisis facing such dramatic consequences as a result of climate change, we have a moral and legal responsibility to respond and provide the funding needed so that these communities are not in danger.”
Until then, however, it was up to Tom to find new ways to prize funds out of an unresponsive bureaucracy. It turned out that he had a knack for it.
Government officials praised Tom for finding other sources of funds, such as development grants, and putting them to use for building the new village site. But it has been a laborious process for the remote village to find its way through the different funding agencies and a maze of competing regulations.
As Tom found out, each agency had its own set of rules. The state government would not build a school for fewer than 10 children. The federal government would not build an airstrip at a village without a post office. But the rules, from Newtok’s vantage point, appeared to have at least one point in common. They seemed to conspire against the village ever getting its move off the ground.
In 2011, Alaska’s government published a timetable for Newtok’s move [PDF], setting out dates for building an emergency center, housing, an airstrip — all items on Tom’s list. Two years later, the plan is already behind schedule and the official who oversaw that original timetable said there was little chance of getting back on track.
“Newtok is something that is probably going to play out over several decades unless it reaches a dire point where something has to be done immediately to keep the people safe,” said Larry Hartig, who heads Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
Officially, the government of Alaska remains committed to helping Newtok and all the other indigenous Alaskan villages that are threatened by climate change.
Almost all of Alaska’s indigenous villages — more than 180 — are experiencing the effects of climate change, including severe flooding and erosion. Some may be able to hold back rivers and sea, but others will have to move. About half a dozen villages, including Newtok, face extreme risks.
“I am not going to tell any community that they are not going to survive. If the residents want to survive, we will help them,” said Mead Treadwell, the state’s lieutenant governor.
But the cost of relocating just one village — Newtok — could run as high as $130 million, according to an estimate by the Army Corps of Engineers [PDF]. That’s more than $350,000 per villager. Multiply that by half a dozen, or several more times, and the cost of protecting indigenous Alaskan villages from climate change soon soars into the billions.
So far, Newtok has received a total of about $12 million in state funds over the past four years, according to George Owletuck, a consultant hired by Tom to help with the move. Much of that has already gone, to build a barge landing, a few new homes, and an emergency evacuation center — in case the village does not manage to move in time.
Officially, federal and state government agencies have spent some $27 million getting Mertarvik ready, although a considerable share of that figure, some $6 million, did not go directly to the relocation, said Sally Russell Cox, the state official overseeing the move. And there is still no major infrastructure completed at Mertarvik.
Would the government of Alaska commit to picking up the rest of the tab for Newtok and the other villages?
Alaska’s oil revenues have fallen off over the years. In 2012, the state slipped into second place for oil production behind North Dakota. Treadwell admitted the state government would not cover the entire cost of fortifying or moving all of the villages threatened by climate change.
“On the question of is there money to help them with one check? That is something there clearly is not,” he said.
Treadwell suggested some of the at-risk villages could raise funds by setting themselves up as hubs for oil companies hoping to drill in Arctic waters.
However, a number of oil companies have put their Arctic drilling plans on hold for 2013 and 2014. Treadwell admitted there was as yet no comprehensive climate change plan for Newtok and other villages. “I think it’s going to be piece by piece with each community and many different pots of money,” he said.
In the case of Newtok, Owletuck, the consultant, had big ideas for financing the move: growing fruit and vegetables hydroponically in greenhouses, or testing the possibilities of producing biofuels from algae.
He let it be known the village may even have found a mysterious benefactor. Owletuck said he’d had an approach from private individuals, whom he declined to name, wanting to donate $22 million to the move.
None of those propositions have materialized, however. And after more than a decade of uncertainty about the future under climate change, the basic infrastructure of Newtok is coming apart.
Snow covers up a lot of Newtok’s flaws: the open sewage pits, the broken boardwalk over mudflats, some of the abandoned snowmobile wrecks.
Newtok has for years been considered a “distressed village,” with average income of $16,000, well below the rest of the state. Fewer than half of adults in the village have paid work. But even within those dismal measures, conditions have sharply deteriorated in the years since the village has been planning to move.
Aside from the clinic and the school, most buildings are in a state of advanced dilapidation. The floor in the community hall sags like an old mattress. The community laundry is out of order.
In the cramped offices of the traditional council, where Tom works, the furniture dates from the 1970s or 1980s, mid-brown vinyl chairs where the casing has split open, revealing the dirty foam inside. It’s not unheard of to find families of 10 or 12 children living in houses of less than 800 square feet — and none of those homes have flush toilets or running water.
Early mornings find the men of the household trudging out of their homes with five-gallon buckets of waste, which get dumped at various spots on the edges of the village, including a small stream.
The diesel-powered generator was nearing the end of its life span. The water treatment plant was shut down last October after people began getting sick. Tom said there was contamination from leaking jet fuel at the airport.
For now, villagers are drawing water from the school, which had a separate system. But the school principal said he would have to cut that off in May to preserve the system for the schoolchildren.
Tom said there was nothing he could do. Government agencies would not fund improvements at the current village site, because of the plan to move. “There is no money to improve our community,” he said. “We are suspended from federal and state agencies and there is no way of improving our lives over here. The agencies do not want to work on both villages at once.”
By last October, frustration with the stalled move and conditions in the village exploded. Villagers accused their own council of failing to hold regular elections, and raised a petition to throw out the leaders and replace Tom.
Some accused him of presiding over a dictatorship in the village. Others speculated that he and the paid consultant, Owletuck, were plotting to rob the relocation funds.
One of the dissidents, a relative newcomer to the village, posted ferocious criticism of Tom on Facebook calling for rebellion.
The dissidents organized elections, voted out the old council, and installed their own leaders. Tom ignored the result. “Let them cry all they want,” he said. “I don’t care. They are not going to help my community. I am way ahead of these guys.”
The upheavals in Newtok are sadly familiar to those who have worked with indigenous Alaskan villages confronting climate change. “I don’t think you would find one community that says they are happy with the pace that’s gone on,” said Patricia Cochran, director of the Alaska Native Science Commission.
“To be honest with you, I think the state and the feds have done a terrible job, not only in assessing the conditions that communities are living within but in responding to them,” she said. “Because these communities are listed as threatened and may potentially be relocated, they are not able to get any funds now for infrastructure that is being damaged right now.”
That leaves communities stuck in a limbo that can carry for years or even decades.
That’s what has become of Newtok. The effects are devastating, said Charles. Beyond all her anger she admitted was an all-enveloping fear. “Sometimes I get scared. I’m scared for my own family. How will I take care of them if the relocation doesn’t start right away?”
She had been waiting for years to see the beginnings of any new settlement in rural Alaska rising up on the rocky hill of Mertarvik: the airport, the barge landing, the school, the houses. None of it was there yet, and Charles said she was coming close to despair.
“It’s been going on for I don’t know how long, and I am beginning to lose hope.”