Families forced to evacuate Panama island due to rising sea levels

Residents of a tiny island off Panama's Caribbean coast are being forced to drop their life and businesses to move to the mainland because of rising sea levels.

The Gunas of Gardi Sugdub, an island with a 200-year-old history and home to about 300 families, will be relocated to the mainland as part of a $12m (£9.4m) project to bring people to safer shores.

Steven Paton, director of the Smithsonian Institution's physical monitoring program in Panama, said the upcoming move "is a direct consequence of climate change through the increase in sea level".

The people 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.

The relocation project will see people relocated to a new site made up of concrete houses sitting on a grid of paved streets.

It's only an eight-minute boat ride from the idyllic island to the mainland, but for some of those who are moving, it feels like they are leaving much of their lives behind.

"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, but the sea is sinking the island little by little," said Nadín Morales, 24, who prepared to move with her mother, uncle and boyfriend.

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Some residents have decided to stay until it's no longer safe to do so, an official with Panama's ministry of housing said, adding no one is currently being forced to leave against their will.

Gardi Sugdub is one of about 50 populated islands in the archipelago of the Guna Yala territory.

It is only about 366 meters long and 137 meters 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 the homes.

Climate change is not only leading to a rise in sea levels, but it's also warming oceans and powering stronger storms.

"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," Mr Paton said.

"All of the world's coasts are being affected by this at different speeds," he added.