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Marshall Islands: climate change and security cooperation key concerns to tiny island nation.

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In the heart of the Pacific Ocean halfway between Hawaii and Australia lies one of the most remote inhabited places on the planet. The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) consists of 29 coral atolls comprising 1,156 individual islands and islets, distributed across 750,000 square miles of tropical ocean in two nearly parallel chains. With a total land area of less than 70 square miles, the RMI is not only the smallest of the three Freely Associated States, but also the seventh smallest sovereign nation in the world.

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"I had no idea this tiny little country could be such an important player on the world stage, but it is," said Sarah Nelson, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Majuro. "The RMI and the United States are incredibly important partners. They are a thriving, independent, culturally unique group of people that need to be respected for what they have to offer the world, and not just as a former Trust Territory. They also need some assistance, and our support and guidance at times."

The U.S. Embassy is located on Majuro Atoll, which is home to the capital and nearly half of the country's 70,000 residents. Another 15,000 Marshallese reside on tiny Ebeye, one of the most densely populated islands in the Pacific. Ebeye is the only urban center in the Ralik chain, and the most populous island in the Kwajalein Atoll, which surrounds the world's largest lagoon.

Rising waters and increasing ocean temperatures related to global warming are existential issues for the RMI, a nation with a mean elevation just 7 feet above sea level. The nation's atolls are the geologic remnants of volcanic islands that subsided into the ocean over eons. All that remains of those submerged landmasses are the barrier reefs that once surrounded them. These reefs continued to grow, transforming slowly into a series of small islands that now encircle protected lagoons.

Because the reefs that comprise atolls are formed by coral growth in warm waters, they are only found inside the tropics. In recent years climate change has led to damaging tidal inundations, increased erosion and coral bleaching, events that threaten the structural integrity of the atolls throughout the RMI. One of the most devastating environmental impacts, however, has been the decrease in precipitation that provides the nation's residents with fresh water.

An equatorial nation in the middle of the Pacific is the last place one would expect to find extreme drought conditions, but that is exactly the crisis RMI residents are now facing. Since late 2015, an unusually strong El Nino has upended weather patterns that normally bring crucial rain to the tiny island nation, forcing RMI President Hilda Heine to this year declare a state of national emergency, Feb. 4, and an elevated state of disaster March 10.

"Hardship in the outer atolls, which are entirely rural, as well as in the relatively urbanized atolls, has really increased," said Dr. Riyad M. Mucadam, senior advisor on climate change for the RMI's Office of Environment Planning Policy Coordination. "In the atolls, wealth is not a differentiator in terms of the hardships that are imposed as a consequence of climate change. It doesn't matter who you are or what you have, you're subject to the same consequences as the person next door--you have to line up for drinking water just like everyone else."

Climate change-related issues are a top priority for American officials at Embassy Majuro. Along with coordinating aid, the embassy is encouraging the Marshallese to develop more efficient water management techniques, and providing them with the tools they need to better prepare for an uncertain future.

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"Our job is to continue to make these issues known. [The Marshallese] can put in sea walls where required, but they also need to work on the health of the coral because that helps to raise the land area, and they need to be smart with the resources they have here," said Ambassador Thomas H. Armbruster. "Climate change resilience is going to become increasingly incorporated into our planning and spending."

Beginning in 1946 and continuing through 1958, several of RMI's islands were the sites of U.S. atmospheric nuclear testing. Residents of Bikini and Enewetak Atolls were relocated to other islands during the tests and then displaced for decades due to the resultant radioactive contamination. Residents were finally able to return to portions of Enewetak in 1980. The United States paid millions of dollars in compensation to the Marshallese, conducted extensive cleanup operations and continues to provide the Marshallese with free screening and medical services related to potential radiation exposure. Bikini, though still uninhabited, has become a popular diving destination, primarily due to the number of sunken ships in its lagoon.

"The nuclear legacy is an old issue that dates back to the Cold War, but it's an important one, and we continue to monitor the health of people that were affected," said Armbruster. "The Department of Energy has provided scholarships for young people to study nuclear issues so that they can better understand nuclear legacy questions, and they monitor Runit Dome, which is a repository for nuclear waste in Enewetak."

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Relations between the United States and the RMI have improved significantly since the cessation of nuclear testing in the atolls, and in 1986, the COFA came into force. The resulting partnership, reaffirmed in 2003 with the conclusion of the amended Compact, has led to significant collaboration between the two nations, and the RMI has become a reliable ally for the United States in the Pacific region. RMI's strategic location and geographic vastness now provides the U.S. military with a very different set of unique training opportunities.

"Having the missile defense base on Kwajalein adds some weight to the relationship. We have a lease until 2066, which shows how important that base is to the U.S. national security defense architecture," said Armbruster. "Now the Air Force has added another component, Space Fence, which tracks debris in space. That's something that adds a nice dimension to the relationship."

Embassy Majuro officials work tirelessly to sustain and enhance the bilateral partnership and have increasingly emphasized economic development opportunities as a way for the Marshallese to become more self-sustaining. Commercial fishing permits, and the world's third largest ship registry, underpin the current Marshallese economy. American officials are hopeful that continued infrastructure development will lead to a more robust tourism industry and continued growth in the promising aquaculture sector.

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With only a handful of full-time American employees, the embassy team has embraced the ethos of "small but mighty." Staff members are generalists in every sense of the word, tackling diverse assignments at a moment's notice and working across cones with stakeholders to accomplish objectives.

"We have an incredible impact in every facet of the work we do, and we're into everything," said Nelson. "There are very few places that you can serve as a Foreign Service officer and have breakfast with the president, and then write policy that impacts the lives of 70,000 people. The ability to have firsthand exposure to all facets of government is an incredible thing."

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Despite the environmental and economic challenges the RMI faces, the country's citizens maintain a strong resolve and optimism for a brighter, more sustainable future. American officials have partnered with the Marshallese to make that vision a reality and are redoubling efforts to help them reach long-term goals, even while providing immediate assistance in the midst of the ongoing drought crisis. Embassy leaders believe that with continued engagement on development and proactive efforts to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change, the Marshallese will not just keep their heads above water but also thrive in the years to come.

"This is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world. One of the mottos of the Marshallese is were not drowning, we're fighting,'" said Armbruster. "This can be a country where we can make a real contribution, and I think given RMI's status as our ally in the United Nations, and as a Compact country, we can certainly be the leading partner during this challenging period."

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At a Glance

RMI

Capital: Majuro

Government Type: Constitutional government in free association with the U.S.

Area: 181 sq km

Population: 72,191

Ethnic groups: Marshallese 92.1%, mixed Marshallese 5.9%, other 2%

Environment (current issues): inadequate supplies of potable water, pollution of Majuro lagoon from household waste and discharges from fishing vessels

Languages: Marshallese (official), English (official and widely spoken as second language)

Religions: Protestant 54.8%, Assembly of God 25.8%, Roman Catholic 8.4%, Bukot nan Jesus 2.8%, Mormon 2.1%, other Christian 3.6%, other 1%, none 1.5%

Exports (commodities): copra cake, coconut oil, handicrafts, fish

Imports: foodstuffs, machinery and equipment, fuels, beverages, tobacco

Currency: U.S. dollar

Internet country code: mh

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* The CIA World Factbook
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:FOCUS ON
Author:Pacheco, Isaac D.
Publication:State Magazine
Geographic Code:0PACI
Date:Apr 1, 2016
Words:1501
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