Kiribati: A Nation on the Brink

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Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Kiribati (pronounced Kiribus); a small collection of 32 low lying island archipelagos and 1 raised coral atoll located in the South Pacific and straddling the equator. Owing to its average altitude of less than 2m above sea level the nation is facing an uncertain future due to the devastating impacts of sea level rise and salt water inundation as a result of climate change.

It soon became clear that Kiribati was not a place for tourists; however there were a significant amount of aid workers, missionaries and embassy staff who were always willing to point out the local attractions and discuss the nation’s high and low points. In terms of organised activities, there were a few people offering ‘cultural’ tours, yet I found that by far the best way to learn about the country was to chat with the locals and hire a scooter to explore all it had to offer. Despite a lack of natural landmarks, the nation is rich in military history having been invaded by the Japanese during WWII on the 9th of December 1941. It was used a major Pacific base and was heavily fortified by Japanese soldiers before being attacked by US Marines during the infamous “Battle of Tarawa” in 1943. The Battle of Tarawa was fought on the inlet of Betio (pronounced Beso) and remains one of the bloodiest battles in US Marine Corps history. Following a narrow US victory, missions were carried out to remove the Japanese from the rest of the occupied Islands and inlets. Rusted out tanks and cannons as well as decimated concrete bunkers are still visible on the shores of Betio and a memorial has been erected to commemorate fallen soldiers.

As a highly religious nation, Kiribati was home to myriad of stunning churches of various faiths including Catholic, Jehovah’s, and Protestant. However, it was a shame to see that whilst the churches were built with both magnificence and structural integrity in mind, the majority of the locals lived in makeshift shanti houses made chiefly from palm fronds, sheets of iron and old pieces of fabric. Additionally, despite the presence of dozens of aid workers and foreign consultants, nutrition was lacking and it was not uncommon to come across small children munching on dry packets of instant noodles (presumably due to a lack of freshwater to boil). At one stage I came across a large billboard displaying pictures of happy children and advertising Maggie two minute noodles as “100% Good for You”. This was disappointing as I was naively imagining feasting on coconuts and an abundance of other tropical fruit and vegetables. However even coconuts are becoming rarer due to salt water intrusion destroying underground water tables. As a result, the majority of the nation’s food comes from imports and donations.

Upon arrival to the Republic of Kiribati, I noted a stunning contrast between the incredible natural setting and location of the nation and the raw human condition of the I-Kiribati (local) people. Whilst the states capital of South Tarawa appeared on the surface to be set in a tropical paradise, the impacts of human habitation were almost immediately evident. Being such a tiny, isolated nation, population density and waste management were major issues. Consequently, otherwise pristine shorelines were littered with coke cans, two minute noodle packages and rusted car parts. All of these products are being externally imported and readily embraced by the majority of the islands residents as a result of globalisation and the pursuit of modernity. This was less the case on the island of North Tarawa in which residents live a basically traditional and more laidback lifestyle. It was therefore interesting and somewhat saddening to note that it was the ambition of many of the youth of North Tarawa to move to its counterpart in the South.

Essentially, overpopulation can be seen as the root cause of many of the nation’s environmental problems such as waste, pollution, and resource scarcity. Contraception is not widely available or encouraged due to the conservative religious presence in the country and the women do not have access to education regarding family planning. Thus the nation is experiencing a population boom and exploiting the states limited resources. However, it is the threat of anthropogenic climate change caused predominately by developed nations that poses the biggest challenge to the states continued existence. This is due to impending sea level rise and salt water inundation, which according to experts will render the nation uninhabitable by as early as 2030.

There have been some efforts to adapt to the imminent impacts of sea level rise via the planting of mangroves and the building of sea walls along shorelines. However these measures are only short term fixes to what will be an ongoing and challenging threat to the nation. From observation, it was also clear that although improvised adaptation strategies had been implemented by the I-Kiribati people, there was a very limited understanding of the science behind climate change and sea level rise. Therefore, the citizens by and large did not recognize why their homes were being affected nor did they comprehend the gravity or long term nature of the situation. Despite the vulnerability of the I-Kiribati people, who are among the first to experience the wide ranging impacts of anthropogenic climate change, I found the locals to be genuinely happy, friendly and care free albeit slightly ignorant of their situation. The children were especially welcoming and would enthusiastically (and loudly) exclaim Mauri (Hello) when I passed.

During my time in North Tarawa I had the privilege to stay at the local boarding school and give presentations to the students regarding the impacts of sea level rise and climate change. Even though the students were hesitant to use their English skills, I could see that for some of them, the issue of sea level rise was an immediate threat to their livelihoods. Therefore it was an amazing and unforgettable opportunity to work with these students to discuss adaptation strategies and highlight their ability to take direct personal action. I fundamentally believe that education needs to be the key to implementing successful adaptation measures in the face of global climate change. It is through education that we can overcome ignorance and apathy and work with youth to develop innovative solutions to environmental issues and improve the outcomes of future generations.

Overall, my 3 week stay in Kiribati was at times inspiring, exciting, heartwarming and beautiful. However it was also challenging, confusing and sometimes thoroughly depressing. It was a nation of extreme contrasts; between incredible scenery and tragic waste and pollution, and between a fierce concern for the environment and a sense of hopelessness and indifference. Essentially, the fate of Kiribati does not just rest with its people, but with all of humanity who have a duty to swiftly address the issue of global climate change. It is clear that whatever the outcome, Kiribati will provide a precedent regarding climate change adaptation for other states in the future.

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3 Comments

  1. What an interesting article Lisa! Indeed I too believe that education should form an important tenet for states such as Kiribati in addressing issues related to climate change and sustainability. It is sad to think that the pursuit for growth and “modernisation” of the Kiribati people is reflected in their consumption of “Coke” and Maggi Noodles. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on what might be some of the medical conditions the people of Kiribati may face in the near future and whether they have the capacity to overcome health-related ailments as a result of this new lifestyle?

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