Rising Waters cause Chaos
Climate change is threatening the livelihoods of the people of this tiny island, and even the island nation's existence. The government is making plans for the island's demise.
Last winter, a tidal surge swept over an ocean embankment in the remote, low-lying island country of Kiribati kicking in the doors and windows of Betio Hospital.
Kiribati is an island nation in the central Pacific Ocean. The nation comprises 33 atolls and reef islands and one raised coral island; Banaba. They have a total land area of 800 square kilometres (310 sq. mi) and are dispersed over 3.5 million square kilometres (1,351,000 square miles). Their spread straddles the equator and the 180th meridian, although the International Date Line is indented to bring the Line Islands in the same day as the Kiribati Islands. The permanent population is just over 100,000 (2011), more than half of whom live on Tarawa Atoll.
The tiny nation became independent from the United Kingdom in 1979. The capital and now most populated area, South Tarawa, consists of a number of islets, connected by a series of causeways. These comprise about half the area of Tarawa Atoll.
Beero Hosea, 37, a handyman, helped carry frightened women to a nearby school. "If the next one is combined with a storm and stronger winds, that's the end of us," he said.
For years scientists have been predicting that much of Kiribati may become uninhabitable within decades because the environmental problems linked to climate change. And for just as long, many here have paid little heed. But while scientists are reluctant to attribute any specific weather or tidal event to rising sea levels, the tidal surge last winter was a chilling forewarning. "It shocked us," said Tean Rube, a pastor with the Kiribati Uniting Church. "We realized that O.K., maybe climate change is real."1
Much of Kiribati lies no higher than a few metres above sea level. The latest climate models predict that the world's oceans could rise nearly that by 2100. Half of the 6500-person village of Bikenibeu could be inundated by 2050 by sea-level rises and storm surges, according to a World Bank study.
Bikenibeu is a settlement in Kiribati. It is located close to the southeastern corner of the Tarawa atoll, part of the island country of Kiribati. It is part of a nearly continuous chain of settlements along the islands of South Tarawa, which are now linked by causeways. The low-lying atoll is vulnerable to sea level rise. Rapid population growth has caused some environmental problems. Kiribati's main government high school, King George V and Elaine Bernachi School, is located in Bikenibeu, as well as the Ministries of Environment and Education.
The study lays out Kiribati's future in apocalyptic detail. Causeways would be washed away, crippling the economy; degraded coral reefs would allow stronger waves to hammer the coast, increasing erosion and disrupting the food supply, which depends heavily on fish. Higher temperatures and rainfall changes would increase the prevalence of diseases like dengue fever. Even before that, experts say, rising sea levels are likely to worsen corrosion, create groundwater shortages and increase the intrusion of salt water into fresh-water supplies.
In response, Kiribati has urged residents to consider moving abroad. It bought nearly 2400 hectares in Fiji, an island nation more than 1600 kilometres away, as a refuge. Fiji's higher elevation and more stable shoreline make it less vulnerable to onslaught of the sea. But packing up an entire country is not easy and may not be possible. And many Kiribati resident remain skeptical of the need to prepare for an eventuality that may be decades away.
As President Anote Tong became a climate-change celebrity, opponents accused him of ignoring problems on his own doorstep. In March elections, the opposition defeated his party. The New president, Taneti Maamau, said he planned to shift priorities. "Most of our resources are now diverted to climate-change-related development, but in fact there are also bigger issues, like population, the health of the people, and the education of the people," he remarked.2
There is no shortage of ideas to avert Kiribati's environmental fate. China's construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea shows the promise of sophisticated island-engineering technology, experts say. But such measures are financially unrealistic for a resource-poor, aid-dependent country like Kiribati. The freshwater crisis is also fixable, at a cost. Kiribati could invest in desalinization equipment or ship in drinking water, but this is a country with only one paved road. "It's all doable," states Doug Ramsay, the Pacific Rim manager at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand. "It's just going to be a very expensive exercise."
Coastal threats are increasingly clear to residents of Buariki, an Oceanside village of thatched-roof huts and towering coconut palms on the island of North Tarawa. Some villagers claim they are already resigned to leaving.
Still, migration may become increasingly important. Mr. Tong said he hoped to prepare his people to move with job-training programs that would meet standards recognized in Australia and New Zealand.
"The science of climate change is not 100 percent precise," he said in the interview. "But we know without any argument that, in time, our people will have to relocate unless there are very, very significant resources committed to maintain the integrity of the land."
Coastal threats are increasingly clear to residents of Buariki, an oceanside village of thatched-roof huts and towering coconut palms on the island of North Tarawa. Erosion along the beach has already toppled dozens of coconut trees. The World Bank estimates that 18 to 80 percent of the village, which sits on a peninsula not more than a few hundred feet wide, may be underwater by 2050.
Some villagers said they were resigned to leaving. "Our government already has land in Fiji for the Kiribati people, so if there are more high tides here, they'll bring people to live there," said Kourabi Ngauea, 29. "But it depends on the government, and if they can support us."
Others see no need to leave. "This is where I belong," Aroita Tokamaen, 76, said as she peeled a coconut on her patio. "I would rather stay."
The tide that damaged the hospital here last winter was an exceptionally strong king tide, a surge that occurs twice a year when the moon is closest to the Earth. The waves also flooded the thatched-roofed outdoor meeting space of the local branch of the Kiribati Uniting Church.
Sounds and looks like to me that climate change is getting the upper hand. If it were me, I'd be on the next stage out of Dodge.
1 Mike Ives. "Rising Waters Threaten a Remote Island Nation" The New York Times International Weekly (July 9, 2016): 3