Sinking Island's Residents Throw in the Towel

Gunas of Gardi Sugdub, an island off Panama, relocate to mainland amid sea level rise
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 8, 2024 1:59 PM CDT
Updated Jun 8, 2024 2:10 PM CDT
Sinking Island's Residents Throw in the Towel
A youth dives into the sea from Gardi Sugdub Island, part of the San Blas archipelago off Panama's Caribbean coast, Sunday, May 26, 2024.   (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

On a tiny island off Panama's Caribbean coast, about 300 families are packing their belongings for a dramatic change. Generations who have grown up on Gardi Sugdub in a life dedicated to the sea and tourism will trade that next week for the mainland's solid ground. They go voluntarily—sort of. The Gunas of Gardi Sugdub are the first of 63 communities along Panama's Caribbean and Pacific coasts that government officials and scientists expect to be forced to relocate by 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," Nadín Morales, 24, tells the AP. "But the sea is sinking the island little by little."

An official with Panama's ministry of housing said that some people have decided to stay until it's no longer safe. Authorities won't force them to leave. Gardi Sugdub is one of about 50 populated islands in the archipelago of the Guna Yala territory. It is only about 400 yards long and 150 yards wide. From above, it's roughly a prickly oval surrounded by dozens of short docks where residents tie up their boats. Every year, especially when the strong winds whip up the sea in November and December, water fills the streets and enters homes. Climate change isn't only leading to rising sea levels, it's also warming oceans and powering stronger storms.

The Gunas have tried to reinforce the island's edge with rocks, pilings, and coral, but seawater keeps coming. "Now the tide comes to a level it didn't before, and the heat is unbearable," says Morales. Some plan to move to a new mainland site that the government developed at a cost of $12 million. The concrete houses sit on a grid of paved streets carved out of the lush tropical jungle just over a mile from the port, where an eight-minute boat ride carries them to Gardi Sugdub. It's just the start of a wider migration. "The islands on average are only a half-meter above sea level, and as that level rises, sooner or later the Gunas are going to have to abandon all of the islands almost surely by the end of the century or earlier," says Steven Paton, director of the Smithsonian Institution's monitoring program in Panama. (More climate change stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.