Kiribati: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

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In much of the world, climate change often struggles to steal the limelight, but in few places is that less true than in Kiribati. The Pacific island nation of Kiribati is one of the most climate vulnerable countries on the planet, with an average elevation of less than six feet above sea level. The I-Kiribati, the people of Kiribati, are already experiencing numerous problems related to climate change, and as sea levels rise, these problems will only be exacerbated. While the problems of Kiribati may seem small-scale, particularly in the context of a global issue like climate change, the experience of the country will be the harbinger of what communities around the world can expect to face in coming decades. Kiribati shows that the existential threat of climate change presents problems that are yet to be solved, and how the fear of impending environmental disaster can rip apart the social and political fabric of a culture.

The environmental challenge faced by Kiribati is easy to understand but hard to overcome: the sea level is rising and the islands of Kiribati are low-lying. Rising sea levels present more problems than merely the possibility of the country eventually sinking (although that is, for obvious reasons, a fairly large problem); sinkage is precipitated by increased storm damage, soil erosion, and contamination of freshwater resources, all of which have detrimental effects on the safety and health of inhabitants. Already, there has been a tangible impact on the life of many I-Kiribati. A report from the UN published in 2016 found that 94% of households had been impacted by environmental hazards in the preceding 10 years, such as sea level rise, saltwater intrusions, and drought. The prospects going forward are grim: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said Kiribati could be “uninhabitable” by 2050.

In the face of this present and prospective privation one might expect climate action to be all-encompassing. However, this view overlooks the complexity of challenges facing communities in Kiribati and the social and political obstacles. Many I-Kiribati are reluctant to leave their country, and there are deep cultural ties between people and the land they live on. Religion is also an important part of Kiribati culture, with the last census showing only 23 of the nearly 120,000 I-Kiribati followed no religion. Many I-Kiribati refuse to believe that the islands will ever sink, such as President Maamau, who has expressed that “we try to isolate ourselves from the belief that Kiribati will be drowned” as “the ultimate decision is God’s.” A report conducted for the Australian Government found that “Christian narratives can serve as barriers to understanding and ‘believing in’ climate change”. Others, however, like former President Tong, have said that the country must be prepared to “reconcile ourselves to the brutal reality that some of our people may have to be relocated”.

With such social controversy surrounding the issue, it is no wonder that the issue of climate change has become politicized. There are even reports of foreign journalists being barred after reporting on the climate crisis. The political divide is best expressed in looking at the two main plans Kiribati has acted upon to confront sea level rise. The first was the action of President Tong’s administration, who prepared plans to relocate in a worst-case scenario. In 2014, the Kiribati government bought land in Fiji to potentially move the population in case homes were submerged. A survey released at the Paris Climate Summit found that there was a degree of popular support for this strategy, with more than 70% of households in Kiribati feeling that if climate conditions worsened they might migrate elsewhere. Tong’s plan, which he has referred to as “migration with dignity”, was designed to be a slow, managed transition into life away from Kiribati by finding people employment and legally relocating them to places like Australia and New Zealand, as opposed to a sudden, unplanned mass exodus of refugees in the wake of a climate disaster. Despite many being open to the possibility of leaving, few have taken the step to migrate overseas, because of a preference to stay in Kiribati or an inability to secure jobs elsewhere. A New Zealand residence program that provides up to 75 Kiribati citizens each year to move to New Zealand has frequently failed to fill the quota, despite worsening conditions in Kiribati.

Tong’s successor, President Maamau, has taken a different approach, rejecting the strategy of migration. Instead, he has switched Kiribati’s allegiance from Taiwan to China, and in the process secured help to raise the islands by dredging sand and to replace causeways with bridges to improve water flow. He has attempted to deemphasize climate change, and instead focus on raising the quality of life. This would be achieved by increasing investment in the tourism and fishing industries, expanding the coconut trade and reducing population density in the main island of South Tarawa. In short, he wants to turn Kiribati into a “Dubai of the Pacific”. The belief is that if the quality of life in Kiribati increases, then Kiribati and the I-Kiribati will be better able to cope with the challenges of climate change. Tong has frequently criticized President Maamau on his views regarding climate change, but President Maamau enjoys popular support, winning re-election in 2020 by a relatively large margin. This indicates that people in Kiribati have come to reject the notion of needing to move, instead preferring to learn to adapt and remain in place. The plan is, in the words of one of the plan’s own science advisers, “a challenging project”. It requires more financial resources than Kiribati has right now, necessitating greater foreign aid, and would rely on sustained investment and political will for around a decade before it is completed. Many of the smaller or more vulnerable pieces of land are also unlikely to be saved, and the I-Kiribati will still have to reckon with environmental hazards in the region. However, while the plan may sound ambitious, the stakes are high for Kiribati, and if everything comes together it has the potential to protect the country’s major islands while continuing to allow the I-Kiribati to live in their country.

Of course, the effects of climate change are not confined to only Kiribati. Other countries are also dealing with similar challenges, and responding in their own ways. Papua New Guinea, a country with several islands in similar situations to those in Kiribati, has already had to relocate communities from some islands, in what has been called the first instance of environmental refugees. This is more in line with Tong’s vision of Kiribati’s future. The Netherlands, on the other hand, closer reflects Maamau’s plan. With almost half the population living under sea level, the government has created a complex system of water management and infrastructure, and has even started experimenting with floating houses. Louisiana, meanwhile, where one-third of the state is wetland, has begun to harness the power of oysters to increase flood and storm protection, creating large oyster reefs. The diversity of approaches reflects the uncertainty of how to best combat climate change, but it also shows the creativity and problem-solving being used around the world.

The example of Kiribati is one likely to be replicated globally. Kiribati shows that social and political factors have a large impact on how countries decide to deal with challenges posed by climate change, and that any attempt to solve climate problems needs to take into consideration sociocultural and political views. Additionally, both the idea to relocate to other countries and the plan to use international help to improve island conditions have an international dimension that highlights the global nature of climate change; without international help, both directly in the form of aid and indirectly through providing examples of other ways to fight climate change, cooperation will be essential for the survival of many communities in coming decades. The international community also needs to work to mitigate climate change, otherwise solutions like moving to Fiji or raising the islands will only help temporarily. The tragedy of Kiribati is that they are dealing with a problem that they had very little part in causing, and the only way it can be truly solved is with global collective action. But despite the pessimism inherent in much of the climate story, the resilience and determination of people to protect their communities provides a degree of optimism. One hopes that in that end, the rising tide won’t sniff out these embers of hope.


Photo: Image via Flickr (KevGuy4101)

More posts by Aden Littlewood.
Kiribati: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
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