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  • Farah Al Jallad

Natural Disasters Threaten Indigenous Communities in British Columbia, South Dakota and Beyond

Indigenous people are one of the most disproportionately affected populations in the U.S. and Canada by climate change and the natural disasters it fuels.

Credit: Unsplash/Matt Howard

Colonizers forced Native tribes into undesired lands centuries ago, and with warming temperatures leading to worsening wildfires, droughts and floods, the government now neglects them. Many Native American’s and First Peoples' lives are being jeopardized by governments' failure to establish measures to avoid excessive pollution, which is destroying their homes and villages. The land that they were forced to live on is becoming completely uninhabitable.

Temperatures are rising because of climate change. While this is still seen as a minor inconvenience for some people, it reduces the number of resources that Native villages have. Indigenous communities are experiencing water scarcity, particularly caused by intense droughts and harsh storms.

In a 2019 event on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, 8,000 residents lost drinking water after a rough storm flooded their town. Many tribes are experiencing similar disasters, and as climate change gets worse, so do challenges to their way of life. Not only is their water supply threatened, but their food security is at risk as well.

Native tribes' traditional crops, which have been produced for millennia, are languishing due to drought and floods. Unable to grow more crops because of higher temperatures, Indigenous communities struggle with food poverty. Many can’t afford to keep up with the cost of imported alternatives as the prices increase. In addition, limited access to other traditional foods such as salmon, shellfish and plants can lead to a sense of cultural loss for these communities.

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One of the more disastrous consequences of rising temperatures is an increased frequency of storm surges. Intensifying natural disasters, combined with inadequate infrastructure, put Native populations at risk of losing their homes and towns, forcing them to relocate with little to no government assistance. One example is The Quileute Nation. In 1855, they were removed from their land and forced into a small area on the Olympic Peninsula, now prone to flooding due to climate change. They have no choice but to travel inland, abandoning the village and homes in which they have spent their entire lives. Only receiving enough grants to build a new school, the community is left to figure out how to relocate without any government aid.

Indigenous peoples aren’t only facing these climate shocks in the U.S., however. In late June this year, Lytton, BC, reached its highest temperature yet—121 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature scientists said would have been impossible to achieve without human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Shortly after the massive heatwave hit, a wildfire erupted and destroyed the Nlaka'pamux Nation's entire village. Already struggling with food security from rising temperatures, the areas where they gathered most of their food have since been destroyed. In addition, traditional hunting grounds are now lost. It took hours for the government to respond to the First Nation, and even then, the village had to wait 14 hours for any aid. While fires happen every year in Lytton, the government still hasn’t set up any procedures for this kind of disaster.

Scientists have been urging governments and corporations to make significant changes fast. It’s clear that marginalized populations are disproportionately bearing the effects of climate change.


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