Rural Alaskan villages hope to remove barriers to federal funding to address climate change threats
As land rapidly erodes and coastlines shift, one-third of Alaska Native villages are see major consequences and very little help.
About 70 of more than 200 Alaskan Native villages are facing permafrost erosion, flooding, or thawing, which can mean a threat to security, loss of infrastructure, and changes to the environment and traditional practices. Federal agencies have dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to help villages cope with the effects of climate change and prepare for future threats, but communities have struggled to get help. With help from various agencies through different programs, it can be easy to get lost browsing the options, and it’s hard to find the ones that can actually help.
A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office reviewed federal efforts to help Alaska Native villages affected by climate change and made recommendations to Congress and federal agencies to better help these communities. Specifically, the office recommended consolidating available aid, providing technical assistance to tribes applying for funding, and ensuring that proposed programs are applicable to Alaska Native tribes.
“They seem to have listened and noted all the focal points that were discussed. It’s a start,” said Twyla Thurmond, who is from Shishmaref and is now a tribal liaison for Climigration Network. “I see really solid recommendations, but there’s always a process and getting something complete. Is it up to Congress to make sure these programs actually do it? What is the next step ? This is my biggest worry.
While recommendations can be helpful, some feel they don’t go far enough. Griffin Hagle, Managing Director of the Taġiuġmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority in northwest Alaska, said the report “continues to revolve around the fact that nothing less than wartime mobilization is needed to address the causes and effects of climate change”.
In Newtok, one of many Alaskan communities threatened by climate change, land erosion caused the community to begin moving to a new location, Mertarvik. The first part of the relocation took years and the process is still incomplete as the village of nearly 400 people went through available programs with different requirements, timelines and goals.
Newtok needs to build about 45 more houses to move everyone to the new location, and the community needs to combine support from multiple sources to fund construction. Meanwhile, the remaining 275 residents in Newtok continue to face significant erosion risks, which are expected to pose a serious threat to the school this fall.
Faced with environmental threats, villages often have to deal with immediate damage to infrastructure. But at the same time, they face the challenge of preparing for future threats and increasing their resilience, for example by building berms to protect against erosion and flooding or moving to safer ground.
There is no single federal program that can meet all the needs of a village; a village will likely have to rely on a variety of programs that are fragmented among federal, state, and tribal agencies. For example, if a village needs to relocate homes that are too close to an eroding shoreline, the Denali Commission, FEMA, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and USDA all administer programs that can help relocate homes. or build new ones. Other agencies may also need to be involved to install supporting infrastructure such as water and wastewater systems, roads and power generation.
Communities also often have to combine assistance from multiple programs to complete a project, in part because the high cost of construction can exceed a single program’s grant-making limit.
“Various agencies that provide aid don’t talk to each other, and often don’t talk to tribes, so people feel lost in the system trying to find the right resource and find the conclusion that fits,” Melinda said. Chase, tribal. liaison officer at the Alaska Tribal Resilience Learning Network. “Many tribes may not know how all the services can work together.”
Hagle said the situation in Point Lay illustrates “the cumulative effects of the lack of political will to act” on the existing housing and climate change crises. In one of their projects, the housing authority is working to demolish a dilapidated old school and build three new duplexes.
“Not having a streamlined, repeatable resource to deal with asbestos reduction at this former BIA school – which is by no means an uncommon problem in rural Alaska – is one more hurdle on the way,” he said.
[Related: Alaska villages will build new homes and improve water and sewer systems using federal COVID-19 aid]
To improve coordination among federal, state, and tribal entities, the Government Accountability Office recommended that Congress establish a coordinating entity that would work with all relevant agencies and ensure that federal investments effectively reach indigenous tribes in the United States. Alaska.
“Every community struggling with a lot of impact — especially the 13 who are in imminent danger — should already have a seat at the table, and all of their information should be consolidated online,” Thurmond said. “There should be an online inter-agency tool that all information goes to.”
In rural Alaska, the challenge of applying for a grant sometimes starts with printing the necessary documents or accessing the Internet, which is often spotty and expensive, Thurmond said. At one point, she almost missed an application deadline because the weather was bad and the internet connection was unreliable.
“It takes a lot of funding just to be able to access the internet. And often it doesn’t work when there’s snow, or blizzard, or it’s raining too hard,” she said. “You have to wait for sunny days to be able to contact agencies and participate in anything Zoom Related. It’s a big frustration. »
The Government Accountability Office has recommended that federal agencies providing technical assistance to villages help tribes select and apply for programs.
Reducing barriers for tribes seeking help to fight climate change also means adjusting existing programs, according to the report. Of more than 30 relevant federal programs, the bureau reviewed 20 and found that each had at least one feature that could pose a barrier to villages trying to get help.
For example, some programs, such as those provided by the US Army Corps of Engineers, require local governments to share costs, which can range from 5% to 50% of a project’s total cost. This is a significant barrier for indigenous villages with subsistence economies, preventing villages from applying for this aid, Corps officials reported.
Thurmond agreed that the cost-sharing requirement is something that has always been a barrier for the Shishmaref community.
“The hurdle was finding that scale of funding for cost-sharing when our communities are economically very poor,” she said. “We don’t have $100,000 let alone $300,000 or whatever it takes to get these projects off the ground. »
Another obstacle that tribes face when requesting assistance is that certain programs may only be available under certain circumstances, such as after a natural disaster or an imminent threat to community infrastructure.
“It’s slow, expensive, hard to get to, often only available after a disaster, when people are in crisis now and trying to survive,” Thurmond said.
Most agencies — the Commerce Department, the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, the Department of the Interior, and the Denali Commission — supported the recommendations and agreed to implement them. The sixth agency, HUD, agreed with the intent of the recommendation but said it was vaguely worded.
Thurmond also said the recommendations provided by the Government Accountability Office seemed vague, but overall constructive. His biggest concern was whether they would actually be implemented by the agencies.
“There have been times when we have provided similar recommendations. We keep typing them and talking,” she said. “It has been going on for decades. It is simply difficult to imagine the execution and to ensure that these problems are respected in the system. »
Hagle said more decisive and substantial changes are needed to help villages respond to impending dangers.
“I always think of the distant early warning line,” he said. “The US government left no stone unturned to build them in the 1950s to counter the Soviet threat, but nothing comes close to this level of coordinated focus on the climate emergency.”