Robin Bronen, a human rights and immigration attorney who has been following the work of the Alaskan government and Newtok's situation, says the state government has not developed effective ways to protect communities at risk from climate change.
"Alaska is at the forefront of this issue," she says. "It's been really, really hard because there is no roadmap."
Are governments prepared to manage this difficult and potentially costly problem?
"Absolutely not," Bronen says.
Newtok lies on the Ninglick River near Alaska's west coast, 400 miles from the nearest road. Traveling to the village from Anchorage involves a two-hour flight to Bethel, a regional center that serves as a hub for dozens of tiny villages scattered over a region the size of Ohio. From Bethel, the flight to Newtok takes 90 minutes on a seven-seater prop plane, including several stops in neighboring villages to drop off supplies and pick up trash.
From the sky, Newtok appears precariously perched on a thin strip of land wedged between the Ninglick and Newtok rivers near the Bering Sea. Puddles of water encircle the village. Newtok is composed of small wooden houses scattered along this narrow strip of land. Next to many of these houses stand smaller wooden huts - steam houses where the villagers bathe and meet, in much the same manner as their ancestors. Villagers are advised of the commencement of events inside the hall by way of announcement on the two-way radio system that serves as Newtok's audio billboard, in place of phones or Internet connections.
As the plane circles to land, it is plain to see the Ninglick River's waters encroaching on the village as a result of increased temperatures and rising sea levels in the nearby Bering Sea, from which the river flows.
Officials first assessed Newtok's erosion problems in 1983 when the villagers hired a consultant to evaluate the effects of the rising waters.After a series of public meetings and surveys spanning almost two decades, residents decided in 2003 to relocate the entire village to a grassy hillside on Nelson Island, nine miles upstream. Building a new village provided the only opportunity for the small community to stay together. In the end, it was the only option the residents deemed viable.
But moving a village is not just a matter of packing boxes and loading a moving truck. New infrastructure must be built: plumbing, walkways, streets and electricity. Construction has only just begun on a barge landing that will provide an access point for delivery of the equipment and materials needed to build a new community from scratch.
The Army Corps of Engineers has estimated the cost of relocating Newtok will be between $80 and $130 million, or up to $380,000 per resident. (Tom disputes this estimate, arguing that the voluntary labor the villagers plan to contribute will significantly reduce the costs.)
It took Tom a long time to convince the government that the village needed assistance. But when officials did decide to step in, he realized he was way ahead of the public servants to whom he had turned for help. Tom says he had already completed an impact assessment and obtained permits for the new village site. But the government officials seemed confused, he says. "They don't know how to do it," Tom says. "They don't know how to listen to me (probably because) I'm native, and they're probably saying I don't know nothing."
Relocating a village involves specialized skills beyond the capacity of any single agency. The result is an experimental approach. "It's hit and miss as we go along," she says.
To address this problem, the Newtok Planning Group was formed in 2006. The planning group consists of representatives from nine Alaskan state government agencies, 10 federal organizations and five regional nonprofit groups. Because of the formation of the planning group, some progress has been made toward the village's relocation, including initial studies and layout plans of the new village. Apart from the landing dock and three prefabricated homes constructed by the villagers themselves, no infrastructure has yet been laid down at the new site.
Teddy Tom, 43, remembers a totally different landscape. "All the land that used to be here is gone," he says. "There used to be a huge hill. We couldn't see the village when we came from Tununak after fish camp. Nowadays, because the weather is warm - too warm - the land is sinking. Now we can see the village from a distance."
He expresses hope about the new location. "When we go to the new site, it will be a much better place for us to stay," he says. "The land will be much higher."
"The motivation is the family," Stanley Tom explains later. "We were born here. We want to stick with our subsistence lifestyle."
Fellow resident Bernice John agrees. "If we don't keep our culture, our kids won't learn them from another place," she says.
Stanley Tom is adamant that government has a responsibility to bear the costs, particularly because the government spurred the settlement of Newtok 40 years ago. At that time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs threatened to take custody of the Yup'ik children if the community did not abandon its traditionally itinerant lifestyle and construct a permanent school, he says.
Cox agrees that the government should pay for the move, but doubts that finding funding will be easy. "I don't think it's realistic to think that some big wellspring of funding is going to come through," she says.
Mike Black, deputy commissioner of the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, is one of the most senior officials promoting Newtok's relocation. He too says paying for the move is Newtok's biggest challenge.
Since no single government agency has ultimate responsibility for the relocation project, it seems no single funding source is likely to be identified. Instead, the loose network of agencies that composes the Newtok Planning Group is being held together by good will and Tom's vigilance. And funds are being pieced together grant by grant as each individual step of the project is planned.
"The irony here is that we are trying to avert a disaster," Mike Black muses as he hikes up the hillside at the site of Newtok's proposed new village. "If you wait for a disaster like Katrina, at least you have a mandate and funding."
Alaskan immigration attorney Robin Bronen says the fact that most public support is only available in the form of reconstruction or post-disaster relief is one of the main problems for government. This relief is no use to communities living through a slow, ongoing disaster. Waiting until after a crisis has been declared, or until Newtok has drowned, is a risk that no one wants to take. "That's why it's so critical we think about it now because there are lots of different things that need to be put in place in order for a relocation to happen in a way that protects people's rights," Bronen says.
Meanwhile, Stanley Tom spends his days in the small wooden building that serves as Newtok's Traditional Council office, preparing grant applications and briefing papers. "It's finally getting there," he says of his efforts at driving the relocation of his village. "I'm beginning to think if I do a lawsuit they will pay more attention. I hate to do that, but if I run out of choices, that's my last option."
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