Homes in the village of Newtok, Alaska along the Ninglick river are being abandoned as they have come dangerously close to the disintegrating river bank. The villagers have only one thing on their mind, relocation. Houses nearest to the bank in Newtok are close to being washed away and have already been abandoned.
Folks in Newtok are not happy to be abandoning what has been their home for generations. And now 20 years of melting permafrost has finally caught up, and they must move now.
The Yup’ik village is flanked by the Newtok and Ninglick Rivers. Newtok is sinking at an alarming rate and shrinking. Warm weather, erosion, and thawing permafrost are finally taking their toll. And it has the singularly unfortunate fate of being the first Alaskan community that has fallen a direct victim to climate change and is being forced to relocate.
Several homes have already been swallowed by the river, and it is lapping at the doorsteps of a few more. One-third of the residents of Newtok will relocate this year to a land that has been earmarked as a replacement village for them, named Mertarvik. It is on the other side of the Ninglick River
It has taken decades of protracted planning and dithering before things have finally started moving. Lisa Charles, a resident of Newtok says at one stage it just did not seem possible.
A Quarter Of A Century To Move From Newtok To Mertarvik
She was 16 when her grandparents informed Charles about the plan to move across the river. It was back in 1994. She had been excited to be moving and had expected it to happen within a year, but somehow it would take more than 25 years before they would finally be assured of moving to their new homes across Newtok.
A complete lack of a comprehensive policy caused the delay. The federal government did not have a plan in place, nor the funds to relocate the affected communities even as they continue to bear the impact of rapid climate change.
It will cost around $100 million to move the people of Newtok to Mertarvik. Every step of the process had been mired in bureaucratic muck. Every road and house was sanctioned only after getting the clearance of multiple agencies. And it had created a pile of paperwork. Controlling the grants had also not been easy.
Back in 2003, Congress had finally agreed to create the new village that now sits on high, volcanic ground. The village of Newtok will go to the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.
Stanley Tom, the former Tribal Administrator, says that the villagers have lost in millions. He says mismanagement had led to the loss of grants during the early stages of the process of relocation. He blamed it on a struggle for power between two councils of the village.
The struggle for control between Newtok Traditional Council and Newtok Village Council stalled funding for a long period. The latter finally wrested control. The present president, Paul Charles says that they are all united as a single community now.
The relocation from Newtok to Mertarvik will not be a direct affair. A couple of transitory rearrangements will take place before the villagers finally move to Mertarvik.
There Is No Other Choice
The majority of the villagers will stay put in Newtok for at least this year. Families that have been directly affected and living close to the river bank will be the first to move. The others will have to wait their turn.
That would mean living in an area rendered dangerous by the sinking ground and lack of maintenance. People do not want to invest in an abandoned place.
Newtok now lacks basic sanitation facilities, running water, and even conventional toilets. Homes are overfull as members of multiple generations live in cramped conditions. Damp and mold have added to the unsanitary conditions in the village.
Some villagers are temporarily shifting to their friends and relatives as conditions have worsened in many homes. Relocation will be slow, as funding continues to be a problem.
Many people are not okay with leaving behind what has been their home for generations. Michael Fairbanks says that he feels both sad and happy. At night, the light of their new village can be seen across the Ninglick river.
Mertarvik is 25 minutes away by boat. The roads are well laid, and the homes are spacious at 1,400 square feet each. It has all the modern-day amenities like a stove, refrigerator, and thermostat. Running water, modern toilets, and other amenities are expected in another year.
People are sad to leave their homes behind. But they are happy in the safety of their new home and realize that they will not have to live with the fear of floods, erosion, and melting permafrost. At least not in the immediate future.