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Managed retreat as a strategy for climate change adaptation in small communities: public health implications


In coming decades, sea level rise associated with climate change will make some communities uninhabitable. Managed retreat, or planned relocation, is a proactive response prior to catastrophic necessity. Managed retreat has disruptive health, sociocultural, and economic impacts on communities that relocate. Health impacts include mental health, social capital, food security, water supply, sanitation, infectious diseases, injury, and health care access. We searched peer-reviewed and gray literature for reports on small island or coastal communities at various stages of relocation primarily due to sea level rise. We reviewed these reports to identify public health impacts and barriers to relocation. We identified eight relevant small communities in the USA (Alaska, Louisiana, and Washington), Panama, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. Affected populations range from 60 to 2700 persons and are predominantly indigenous people who rely on subsistence fishing and agriculture. Few reports directly addressed public health issues. While some relocations were successful, barriers to relocation in other communities include place attachment, potential loss of livelihoods, and lack of funding, suitable land, community consensus, and governance procedures. Further research is needed on the health impacts of managed retreat and how to facilitate population resilience. Studies could include surveillance of health indicators before and after communities relocate due to sea level rise, drought, or other environmental hazards. Lessons learned may inform relocation of both small and large communities affected by climate change.

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We thank Liz Koslov, Jennifer J. Marlow, and Lauren E. Sancken for their helpful comments on a draft of this paper.

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Correspondence to Andrew L. Dannenberg.

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Dannenberg, A.L., Frumkin, H., Hess, J.J. et al. Managed retreat as a strategy for climate change adaptation in small communities: public health implications. Climatic Change 153, 1–14 (2019).

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  • Managed retreat
  • Public health
  • Sea level rise
  • Climate change adaptation
  • Indigenous peoples