Countries, Territories in the Pacific

Kiribati: keeping a population afloat

After having explored the cases of Nauru and Tuvalu, that of Kiribati must be looked into as it showcases the dedication of a government to counteract the effects of global warming. Kiribati is one of the poorest countries in the world. Located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, at least five days by boat away from other land, this nation’s survival is threatened by the rising sea level, a phenomenon the local government is dedicated to stall with the help of other stricken Small Islands States such as Tuvalu, Seychelles and the Maldives. 

Kiribati (pronounced Kee-ree-bus) is made out of 33 atolls and coral reefs, and is located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, at least five days by boat away from any other land. The islands are divided into 3 island groups, Gilbert Islands, Phoenix Islands and Line Islands. They are located in both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere as well as on both ends of the International Date Line. The local population is estimated at 110,000 people.Kiribati

The country is one of the least developed – and least visited – in the world; a visit outside South Tarawa is like stepping back in time. Men fish and tend to the coconut trees. Women plant vegetables and braid pandanus leaves into thatches. Only a minority is involved in the monetary economy. It is a simple life that lately has become harder.”

The threat

Every year, the seas are believed to rise by 3mm. Although the number sounds small, such an increase threatens many places around the world like Kiribati whose shores rise at around 2m above sea level. The nation is therefore weak in the face of tides, and especially king tides which have become more frequent (more than 3 times a year as opposed to once every 4 years 20 years ago) due to climate change. This kind of tide destroys the shores of the island more and more everytime, wiping out homes and arable land, leaving only sandy beaches behind. Due to the lack of depth of the islands, it is difficult for the inhabitants to stay away from the shores and so they remain threatened by high waves. Floods also cause the diminution of the sources of drinkable water.

In addition, sea bleaching, or coral bleaching, a phenomenon whereby water temperature rises and water becomes more acid, killing the marine wildlife has affected the Phoenix islands, killing corals and fish. It is only because the archipelago has been protected throughout the years from human activities that the ecosystem is slowly able to rebuild itself.

Finally, Cyclone Pam which destroyed Vanuatu and hit Tuvalu also had repercussions for Kiribati and the most southern islands of the archipelago were hit by strong waves. Kiribati is usually not affected by cyclones due to its location by the equator.

As the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong said:

I think what many people do not understand is they think climate change is something that is happening in the future. Well, we’re at the very bottom end of the spectrum. It’s already with us.

All in all, Kiribati is in a dire situation where its existence is in jeopardy. If the weather conditions continue the way they are now, the entire population will most probably have to relocate. This, however, raises concern amongst the i-Kiribati (the inhabitants of Kiribati) as they are traditionally very attached to their land, and the international level as there is no precedent to base action on.

Saving Kiribati

Several i-Kiribati already left their homeland in the 60s to migrate to Fiji. Movements of population are also occurring inland or to other islands, especially to Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati where unemployment is extremely high.

Another wave of migration has taken place in more recent years, notably to New Zealand and Australia, where the newcomers were granted temporary visas. But because the is no provision for climate refugees in international law, as the term of ‘refugee‘ refers to ” someone who, there are reasonable grounds to believe, will be persecuted due to their race, religion, nationality, political affiliation or membership of a certain social group”, the visas were never renewed.

Although the possibility to migrate is an evident one, the government wishes to look at it as the last recourse. Preserving the islands must be the priority for all, in an effort to preserve a country, an identity as well as to not give up in the face of climate change. The government of Kiribati is doing everything in its power to finds alternatives to the disappearance of this Pacific nation. The emphasis is put on “migration with dignity” which gives the opportunity for some to access training in neighbouring countries such as New Zealand and Fiji, thus giving them a chance to find a better alternative to their limited lives in Kiribati. And although this causes the risk of brain drain, it is seen positively as it could lift off pressure on the seldom local resources while remittance could be a source of revenues for the population of the islands.

In 2014, the government also purchased a 20 sq km piece of land on an island of Fiji, Vanua Levu. This land now serves to ensure Kiribati’s food security by being used to for agricultural and fish-farming projects. The possibility to displace i-Kiribati there is, however, not excluded if the conditions and life on the atolls were to become impossible. The government is also looking into constructing floating islands for its population.

The Phoenix Islands have also been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list, making them the largest designated Marine Protected Area in the world, in an effort to conserve the pristine environement of the islands.

The road ahead

Everything that is currently being done by Kiribati is to address the issue of climate change from all angles by advocating for the survival of the nation on the international scene by notably teaming up with their neighbouring islands which are faced with the same problems, but also by finding innovative and long term solution for the populations. In light of the migration crisis currently taking place in Europe, Anote Tong, the President of Kiribati, continues to seek better alternatives to humanitarian relief and forced migration.

COP21 offered a platform for the President of Kiribati to put his fight forward. He declared before the meeting that

Until we can think of [climate change] as a global phenomenon, because we create it, individually, as nations, but it affects everybody else, and yet, we refuse to do anything about it, and we deal with it as a national problem, which it is not — it is a global issue, and it’s got to be dealt with collectively.

Climate change is a global problem. What can be preserved should be kept intact. Development should be practiced responsibly. Kiribati, and many other islands, pollute very little but yet are the ones which are the most affected by human development and economic growth. They should not be the only ones who advocate for a change.


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