Y-K Delta women describe the realities of living with climate change for foreign dignitaries

three women pose for a photo
Della Carl, Lisa Charles, and Carolyn George spoke about the unsettling realities of living with climate change at the Arctic Encounter Symposium in Anchorage. (Emily Schwing/KYUK)

Three Alaska Native women from the Y-K Delta delivered a powerful story about the impacts of climate change and village relocation to hundreds of international dignitaries and federal officials gathered last week in Alaska for the Arctic Encounter Symposium.

Carolyn George is raising five young daughters in the small community of Newtok, which lies on the edge of the Ningliq River. She’s candid about what it’s like to live in a community that has been ravaged by a changing climate.

“We have flooding everywhere, every year and, you know — we don’t have sanitation, we don’t have plumbing, we don’t have running water,” George said to a crowd of hundreds. “We have honey buckets. It’s a bucket where you poop and pee and we dump it in the river. And when it floods, it comes back washing in. It’s gross!”

Residents in Newtok are supposed to be moving 9 miles across the Ningliq River to Mertarvik, but the process has been ongoing for more than two decades, complicated by politics and disagreements between local, state, and federal governments.

The largest hurdle to relocating out of Newtok is available housing. There simply isn’t enough in Mertarvik.

“Every year it seems to get worse,” George said. “And I can’t wait to move to the new site.”

But when George will have her chance to move is unclear. Some families started relocating back in 2019. To date, only 150 people have relocated permanently to Mertarvik. There are still nearly 200 people living in Newtok.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Interior announced a $25 million infusion of cash for relocation. The cost to fulfill the housing need alone is roughly a third of that, and it’s not clear that the new money can actually be used on housing.

Last fall, a massive storm fueled by Typhoon Merbok brought waves so fierce that the water claimed roughly half of the remaining land that stands between the village’s school and the Ningliq River. What’s left is about 30 feet of spongy, waterlogged land and George says that Newtok is out of time.

“I think if everyone works together, you know, the state, the federal [government], and all the companies work together, it will make it so much faster. We need help and this is America. We still don’t have running water. We’re Americans!” George said.

The women told their story to a crowd of officials from the U.S. Department of Interior as well as Arctic ambassadors from Finland, Norway and Germany.

After Lisa Charles’ 10-year old daughter relocated to Mertarvik in 2019, she wrote a letter as part of a school assignment.

“I have a dream for the workers to finish working on Mertarvik so that people can move here…” it reads. “… we have friends and families at Newtok that are split up from us… It is important that we need to be one village again, because we just want to be in Mertarvik and see our friends and family.”

Charles, who is raising seven children in Mertarvik, said that the separation is hard on them.

“When we first moved over, every weekend they would ask if they could go spend the weekend with everyone over in Newtok because they missed everyone over there,” Charles said.

There’s no store in Mertarvik, so residents often make the trip by boat or snowmachine back across the river to buy food at the store in Newtok.

When it was Della Carl’s turn to share her perspective, she talked about what her kids notice when they travel between the two communities.

“So we took the boat over and we were getting close to Newtok. And they were saying something like ‘oh what is that smell?’ Like it was… it smelled like muddy poop.”

She said that her kids were excited when they returned to Mertarvik and they noticed the stark difference. “As soon as we got to the barge landing, my daughter hops out and she goes ‘Mom. Mom, do you smell that? It smells like watermelon here!’”

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