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Paradise Submerged
<p>Mike Bowers/The Global Mail</p>

Mike Bowers/The Global Mail

In the mid-1990s, Toani Benson would buy petrol from a shop at this site. Now he stands in its submerged ruins.

Kiribati: A Nation Going Under

Running out of options, and water, a nation’s leader enters an end game against climate change. The President of Kiribati urges an orderly evacuation — “migration with dignity”.

Out on the equator lies a threadbare nation of 33 squat islands and wispy atolls that trails 5,000 kilometres west across the Pacific; Kiribati is an unbounded oceanic territory of warming and rising seas, shrinking landfalls and dwindling fresh water. The living are being told to leave. There is no more room for the dead.

Pockmarking the beaches of Tarawa, the atoll on which most of Kiribati’s inhabitants live, are the shell-blasted Japanese bunkers and rust-twisted bones of American landing craft from the last World War.

Grim recovery teams still fly in frequently from America to dig up marines lost for 70 years. The teams are vexed, in their quiet military way, that few here know much about the 76 gruesome hours in 1943 when Japanese machine gunners mowed down 1,600 invading Marines and sailors’ blood turned the beaches crimson. And that they are living in a stunted land where time seems to have stopped at war’s end.

<p>Mike Bowers/The Global Mail</p>

Mike Bowers/The Global Mail

Children sit on top of an 8-inch Vickers guns, transported to Tarawa by the Japanese during WWII.

It was no war of the islanders’ making; Kiribati (pronounced Kirr-i-bas) became a killing field in the battle for control of Tarawa’s airstrip, which afforded the possessors aerial command of an endless ocean. The island nation was trapped in a world gone mad with war.

Seven decades on, it is again being overrun, in the view of the islanders, by a world gone mad with growth and greed.

The waves are slowly seeping over Kiribati, which is at the frontline of the climate-change-induced rise in sea levels striking low-lying nations all over the world. Formerly part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands — a British protectorate until the mid 1970s — Kiribati is lower, frailer and more defenceless. It may be the first nation to enter an end game against climate change.

Kiribati’s leaders now face wrenching questions: How many of its 100,000 people will need to leave? Where will they go? How will it feed those remaining? And, as its islands become uninhabitable, can Kiribati remain a nation at all?

BEFORE A JET TOUCHES DOWN ON TARAWA’S RUNWAY, a ritual intensified by climate change must be enacted on the ground. So over-crowded is Tarawa — 51,000 people are jammed onto a 35-kilometre-long sliver of coral — that a few hundred people now live in shanties made of discarded wood and palm fronds within the scrub next to the runway. Just before the only air link with the outside world lands — a Boeing 737 comes twice a week from Fiji — a white truck is sent up and down the runway to warn off the squatters and others who use the strip as a thoroughfare. Sometimes the airport’s aged fire engine joins in. A red flag is hoisted from a low control tower as the jet screams toward a runway just a few metres above sea level.

Tarawa’s population density of 5,200 people per square kilometre equates to London’s. It is fast increasing. Almost every metre of land available for dwellings has been taken. The atoll’s graveyards are full, and public health officials are troubled that people frequently bury the dead alongside their homes and hand-dug wells.

The Kiribati government forecasts that the population on Tarawa will double to 103,000 in 17 years — if it cannot persuade legions of its citizens to emigrate, slow their birth rate (currently nearly double Australia’s) and move at least some to outer islands.

But some outer islands are also being invaded by the sea. Their fragile fresh water reserves stored naturally beneath the ground are dying away and more and more displaced outer islanders are flocking to Tarawa.

Will Climate Change Claim Kiribati?

The population pressure is now so great that a health catastrophe foments; hundreds of squatters are living where dwellings are banned — on top of Tarawa atoll’s main water lens, the shallow underground bubble in which fresh water gathers when rain seeps through the ground. This lens is the main source of fresh water for tens of thousands of people — water from it is pumped throughout Tarawa. The squatters living atop this vital supply, which sits barely 1.5 metres below ground level, keep pigs and dogs and are likely to be burying animals nearby. There is a real possibility of serious contamination, such as by cholera, triggered by faeces or decomposing tissue leaching through the ground to the fresh water.

BUNDLES OF WIRING DROOP out of the of the disintegrating ceilings within the offices of Kevin Rouata’s Public Utilities Board. Around this building, in bustling, dusty Betio, the commercial centre of Tarawa, and its most overcrowded district, people live jammed together in houses and shanties. Here, the population density is estimated to be three times that of Tokyo.

Super-sized American, Chinese and Taiwanese tuna boats crowd the nearby wharf, while others sit in the surrounding sea channels — reminders that Kiribati is massively dependent on foreign money and generates hardly any export income. The country receives some $40 million annually in royalties from nations which fish its waters. This forms about a quarter of the government’s total annual revenues of around $160 million; another half of that figure comes in the form of foreign aid.

We may be watching the first nation to enter an end game against climate change.

Rouata, a confident, unflustered Kiribati national who worked in Melbourne as a bank-credit analyst before returning home, is the man who, you could say, stands between a climate-change calamity and his nation’s survival. He is the director of the Public Utilities Board and as such is responsible for life’s necessities — sewage disposal, the electricity supply, and fresh water.

The board was created in response to a previous health crisis. In 1977, Kiribati was hit by cholera — some 500 people contracted the disease and the then British administration decided that the islands needed better management of sanitation and fresh water.

Nearly 35 years on, a simple equation raises a fearsome scenario: the population is growing fast, while the fresh water supply is diminishing. Indeed, as sea levels rise, the water lens shrinks because it is being pushed upwards.

Rouata knows exactly how much water can be pumped off the freshwater lens each day to supply most of Tarawa’s 51,000 people without jeopardising future supplies. He says: “We are there [at maximum] now. That’s the scary part.”

Kiribati’s fresh-water security looks grim. The world’s main climate-change monitor — the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change — has published data which predicts that the underground freshwater supply of South Tarawa could shrivel by 65 per cent within 40 years, due to reduced rainfall and sea inundation. Desalination plants are, of course, an option. But their running expenses are assessed to inflate the operating costs of the atoll’s fresh-water system by 16 times.

Rouata has come to see living in Kiribati as akin to be being at sea: “It’s like living on a ship. There’s only limited fresh water, no more land, but the population is growing.”

TWO VERY DIFFERENT CHARACTERS, both drawn to these islands from other parts of the world, are desperately trying to help ward off a water-supply disaster. One is a forthright, engaging nun, raised by outback Queensland graziers. Sister Marella Rebgetz holds an engineering degree and works with the Kiribati Adaptation Program — an initiative run out of the office of Kiribati’s President, Anote Tong. Its mission is to fight back against the effects of climate change.

Sister Marella is trying to increase the harvesting of rainwater into tanks and to stem the frequent wastage of fresh water by the inhabitants on Kiribati.

She has seen misguided aid projects do serious damage in Kiribati. Sixteen months ago she wrote of her frustrations in a newsletter published by her order, the Sisters of the Good Samaritans. One aid project installed solar-powered water pumps in household wells on an outer island of Kiribati. The new technology rapidly over-pumped the wells, causing the underlying salt water to rise and contaminate the whole of the fresh-water reserve, rendering it unusable.

Then, several hundred pit toilets were shipped to another atoll, to help it meet the United Nation’s much-lauded Millennium Development Goals, which aim to halve by 2015 the numbers of people in the world without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. But the pits of the toilets were unsealed, resulting in faeces draining directly into the fresh-water reserves just below.

Kiribati has the highest infant-mortality rate in the western Pacific, more than five times that of Australia. Many babies die of chronic diarrhoea — caused by water-borne and faeces-related illnesses. According to Sister Marella, only when a child reaches its first birthday in Kiribati are its chances of reaching adulthood deemed reasonable. On that occasion, families print T-shirts and slaughter pigs for the birthday celebration.

<p>Mike Bowers/The Global Mail</p>

Mike Bowers/The Global Mail

Father Martin walks through what’s left of the taro and banana fields in Tebunginako, on Abaiang Island. Rising salinity has made the soil infertile.

Only about a third of all dwellings on south Tarawa have a toilet. Most people simply wade into the sea or use the beach, a practice which has rendered inshore fish too dangerous to eat. And swimmers risk disease.

One of Sister Marella’s colleagues on Kiribati is that other character from elsewhere. John McLean is an Irish water engineer, music devotee and a commercial window cleaner in his downtime in Ireland. McLean’s mission on Kiribati is to try to help extend its fresh water supplies by tracking down and shutting off the multitude of leaks in an antiquated reticulation system which runs beneath Tarawa’s sole road. McLean’s first task is to find a way to increase the system’s often pitiable water pressure so that leaks become more obvious. The water supply has been hacked into at hundreds of points by people making unauthorised connections — resulting in leaky joints. In a similar way, the islanders frequently tap into the atoll’s diesel-generated electricity supply to make unauthorised and often lethal power connections to their homes.

For the hard-pressed director of the Public Works Board, Kevin Rouata, a central question is how to convince people that their fresh water supply is a precious commodity and that its upkeep must be funded in some way.

Charging islanders for their freshwater is a vexed issue. A previous director of the Public Works Department lost his job after he tried to enforce the nominal $10-a-month household water-use charge by cutting off water to the non-payers — which included most people on the atoll. Rouata wants to try again to enforce the water charge — but this time by cutting off the supply of electricity to recalcitrant water users. According to Rouata, illegal tampering with the water and electricity supply systems costs the Kiribati budget up to a $500,000 a year — money sorely needed for other purposes.

<p>Mike Bowers/The Global Mail</p>

Mike Bowers/The Global Mail

Kiribati’s President, Anote Tong.

Anote Tong, Kiribati’s 60-year-old president, who holds a science degree from Canterbury University in New Zealand and another in economics from the London School of Economics, is one of the Pacific’s most articulate and best-qualified leaders. But even he will take some convincing on the need to enforce a water charge. He intimated to The Global Mail that he believed such policies over-estimated the ability of people to pay; only 23 per cent of Kiribati’s population receives any sort of cash income — and the vast majority of these people are in government jobs. To provide at least some full-time employment for young people, public servants are retired at 50 years old. As a result of the scarcity of employment opportunities, each adult with a cash income supports about six others.

Tong, a slim, handsome man with sparkling brown eyes, is of Chinese extraction and born on Kiribati. He came to power in 2003 after narrowly defeating his own brother, Dr Harry Tong, a medical doctor on Tarawa. It was a hard-fought campaign that centered on Harry’s allegations that Taiwan had offered tens of millions to Kiribati — and probably cash to his brother — in return for Kiribati agreeing to recognise Taiwan. Harry Tong has recounted how Taiwanese government agents passed bags of cash to him, too. President Anote, however, denied personally receiving any cash from Taiwan; rather, he has said that Taiwan offered Kiribati an $8 million aid package.

Very soon after Anote Tong’s election as president, the Kiribati government announced it would recognise Taiwan. The Chinese were enraged. One night Anote Tong, affronted by the outrage, slammed down the phone on China’s infuriated ambassador to Kiribati. Soon afterwards the Chinese walked out of the country, leaving behind an unfinished sports stadium, pulling out six Chinese doctors from the hospital, and shutting down a controversial tracking station that most observers suspected China was using to track US missile tests at the American military facility in the nearby Marshall Islands.

Today, the grandest building on Tarawa’s only road is still the vast yellow Chinese embassy. It stands empty. Shuttered behind heavy locked gates, a Chinese staff of three tends its gardens and act as caretakers.

ANOTE TONG WAS REELECTED COMFORTABLY in 2007 and the next year began to write off his country’s future because of the effects of a warming global climate on sea levels.

<p>Mike Bowers/The Global Mail</p>

Mike Bowers/The Global Mail

The abandoned Chinese embassy.

He began pushing a policy of mass migration from Kiribati and called for other nations to open their borders to people fleeing the country. So far, few nations have heeded his call. Zambia offered to take as many people from Kiribati as it could, but the African country’s President died before his offer could be taken up. Timor-Leste, an almost equally impoverished land, also offered to take as many immigrants from Kiribati as wanted to come. New Zealand offers 75 places a year to migrants from the islands and atolls. Australia, which already has schemes to take Kiribati nurses and horticultural workers, is stepping up its vocational training aid on Kiribati so that more people will be able to obtain qualifications that might allow them entry and employment within Australia.

Despite the largely lukewarm international reception for the policy he terms “migration with dignity”, Anote Tong is persisting. Citing worst-case scenarios of climate change, he has variously said that his country has between 30 to 60 years before it is uninhabitable because of inundation and contamination of its fresh-water supply.

In June 2008, Tong electrified a climate-change conference in New Zealand and made headlines around the world when he said: “We may be beyond redemption. We may be at the point of no return, where the emissions in the atmosphere will carry on contributing to climate change, to produce a sea-level change so in time our small nation will be submerged.”

Some saw the president’s rhetoric as overblown, designed to garner more international aid for Kiribati, and to summon world leaders to do more to arrest the rate of climate change by setting definite time frames for reducing greenhouse emissions.

Even the atoll’s graveyards are full, and public health officials are troubled that more people are burying dead relatives in shallow graves alongside their homes and near their hand-dug wells.

He also angered many of his own people, particularly some Catholic leaders and priests in Kiribati, who are highly influential and who rejected the notion that man could be responsible for climate change.

But as the water continues to inundate outlying islands — due to the rising sea-level and erosion caused by storm surges — even the greatest sceptics of man-made climate change have come around. One is Father Martin, parish priest on the Island of Abaiang, which is about two hours by boat from Tarawa. Of the island’s population of about 5,000, some 4,000 are Catholics.

Until recently a group of young climate-change activists based on Tarawa, who travelled to outer islands to educate people about the effects of climate change, were not welcome on Abaiang. Father Martin, an intense man who wears thick black glasses, was among the climate-sceptics and feared that the message of the activists would cause his people to lose faith in God and the Catholic Church.

But now his 30-year-old church is flooding during storm surges. As its foundations have begun to give way, so has the priest’s opposition to the science.

Says Father Martin: “When it was first mentioned about the dangers of climate change, I was not believing myself in global warming. It was said that the ice on the North and the South Poles was melting. But I was not a bit concerned about it. But now I accept that climate change is happening and it’s destroying a lot of goodness in the land we now have in Kiribati.”

He now tells his parishioners about climate change: “It is not God’s curse, but a blessing in disguise.” This is because, Father Martin says, the youth of Kiribati will have better opportunities in their lives by being forced to leave the islands and atolls for other countries.

<p>Mike Bowers/The Global Mail</p>

Mike Bowers/The Global Mail

Children play on the main island of Tarawa

Elsewhere on Abaiang Atoll, one village, Tebunginako, which villagers have battled to save for the past 30 years from the encroaching sea, has had to be moved inland — a development that is often referred to as hard evidence that Kiribati is being ravaged by climate change. Tebunginako’s fate is held up as a barometer for the rest of Kiribati by the government, which facilitates the two-hour boat trip there for visiting journalists (including The Global Mail).

Old Tebunginako is a dramatic sight: the remains of about 100 thatched houses, a large community meeting hall (a maneabe) and a petrol station lie out to sea. Yet, as far back as 1992, a technical report, funded by the Canadian government, said increasingly severe El Niño events were producing the large waves that were eroding the Abaiang coast. And that report added that the islanders’ attempts at halting the erosion by building sea walls had exacerbated the island’s inundation. Only very recently — in the past year or two — have some climate scientists begun to suggest a strong link between severe El Niño events and global warming. However, this link is still contested among scientists.

(El Niño weather events occur every two-to-seven years when a mass of warm water builds in the Western Pacific, often causing vastly increased rainfall, high winds and mudslides in otherwise arid nations.)

The harder evidence of climate change affecting Kiribati can be seen on South Tarawa atoll. Large tracts of land have been inundated by the sea. Marooned houses lie among the scores of dead, limp coconut trees killed by salt. Sea walls are collapsing into the atoll and ocean. Even the underside of the airport’s runway threshold is being eaten away. Food shortages, exacerbated by the lack of land for growing crops, are becoming more frequent. Earlier this year, Kiribati had to import large quantities of food from the Marshall Islands.

Only about a third of all dwellings on South Tarawa have a toilet. Most people simply wade into the sea or use the beach. Such practice has rendered the inshore fish too dangerous to eat.

A World Bank study has forecast that unless Kiribati can adapt to the effects of rising seas by rapidly constructing sea walls and planting mangroves, a huge swathe of the main atoll, South Tarawa, will be inundated by the sea come 2050. More than half of the land could be lost.

The fightback against the rising sea is being led from a squat, white building on Tarawa housing the Kiribati Adaptation Project which, until very recently announced itself with a large sign that warned islanders: “Adapt or perish! Let us work together for survival”. But some in the government considered the warning too grim and they replaced it with a less confronting message. The new sign fell in a storm three days after it went up.

Funded by Australia and other international donors, the project is trying to increase the pace of rain water harvesting on Kiribati, build up vulnerable areas of the coast and improve the security of the country’s fresh water delivery systems. But it has a budget of only $11 million — little match for the enormity of the task Kiribati confronts.

A white cylindrical contraption attached to a wharf by Australian scientists on South Tarawa provides the hard numbers and proof of the rising seas. The Seaframe gauge monitors sea-levels, air and water temperatures and winds. It began recording data in 1992, the same year the Canadians fingered El Niño weather events as the cause of sea erosion in Kiribati.

Australian climate scientists now have more than 20 years of reliable data gathered by the Betio gauge. The latest report for Kiribati — published by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology 24 months ago — said that the sea level was rising at the rate of 2.9 mm a year. That’s about the thickness of a wedding ring and may not seem like much, yet it is considerably above the global average sea-level increase over the past century, which was between 1 and 2 mm a year.

<p>Mike Bowers/The Global Mail</p>

Mike Bowers/The Global Mail

This boat is moored where the centre of Tebunginako’s village used to be.

More troubling is the rate of increase in sea-level to the west of Tarawa. Sea level rises in the western Pacific are up to four times the global average. Sea level increases vary wildly around the world; rising localised sea temperatures are the key reason as they cause the local sea mass to expand.What climate scientists can agree on for now is the sea levels will continue rising around Kiribati, storm surges will become more frequent and more low-lying land will be inundated.

But any serious observer of Kiribati will see that the nation’s severe difficulties cannot all be laid at the door of climate change; overcrowding, unemployment, dwindling fresh water, ramshackle roads and houses and disease by themselves cast doubt over Kiribati’s long-term viability. The ravages of climate change might come to be seen as the tipping point which — in combination with its already severe problems — will send Kiribati over the edge.

WHAT WE DON’T YET KNOW is how much faster the seas will rise around Kiribati. What we do know is that President Tong wants his people to start leaving — and many want to go.

Last year in Auckland — New Zealand’s largest city and the world’s largest Polynesian city — a Kiribati man who had lived in the city for six years tried to avoid deportation to his home country by arguing that he would be endangered if he were returned to Kiribati. New Zealand’s immigration officials — they would not identify the man — heard his case but decided the International Refugee Convention does not, yet, provide protection for those claiming to be endangered by climate change.

Read more: Australia urged to formally recognise climate change refugee status.

Nevertheless, the case was closely monitored by the Kiribati government, which believes many people will need to leave so that the islands and atolls can at least sustain a smaller population. President Tong’s government has also been giving much thought to the so-called Atlantis syndrome; how can a small island state actually remain a sovereign nation if most of its people leave and much of the land disappears beneath the waves?

President Tong’s government has also been giving much thought to the so-called Atlantis syndrome; how can a small island state actually remain a sovereign nation if most of its people leave and much of the land disappears beneath the waves?

One potential saviour identified by Kiribati’s president is a speck in the ocean, far away to to the east of the main atoll of Tarawa. Banaba Island is a geographic, political and cultural anomaly. It is much closer to Nauru’s national capital than that of Kiribati, and it is administered from another country — by a colony of Banaban Islanders relocated to a Fijian island who still carry Kiribati passports. Yet it remains Kiribati’s most easterly point. While only 100 people live on Banaba’s six square kilometres of ancient coral, it is Kiribati’s highest point — 81 metres — and that renders it of potentially great strategic importance. President Tong has proposed that in a worst-case scenario an outpost of the Kiribati government could be established on Banaba atoll, retaining a government presence on Kiribati — overseeing its fishing rights and deciding its votes on world issues — even if most of the country’s people and institutions, eventually, had to flee.

That, is admittedly, a still distant scenario. And as the University of NSW law professor Jane McAdam has written, small islands states such as Kiribati will be become uninhabitable — likely because of fresh water shortages — before they disappear under water. McAdam, a specialist in international refugee law, says that an absence of people — rather than territory — may be the first sign that a country no longer displays all the indications of statehood.

McAdam wrote: “Planned and staggered migration over time — the solution favoured by Pacific Islanders — if in situ adaptation to climate change is not possible — may ultimately start to erode longer term claims to continued sovereignty and statehood, since the state’s ‘disappearance’ may begin once the bulk of the permanent population has moved abroad ...”

Among possible — although uncertain — options canvassed by McAdam for disappearing countries to attempt to keep their legal status is the relocation of their population in another country’s territory. Kiribati’s President Tong last month raised international suspicion that he might be planning the latter when he announced Kiribati was buying 6,000 hectares of land on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu. But the president insisted in an interview with The Global Mail that the land in Fiji was an investment for Kiribati — not a site for the relocation of his people. Other high-ranking Kiribati officials said the land would be used to grow food to supply Kiribati.

The spectre of mass emigration is a delicate issue. As Tessie Eria Lambourne, Kiribati’s New Zealand-educated foreign secretary, explains, people do not want to be seen as climate-change refugees.

“We prefer to be called displaced people,” she says. “We do not want to be called refugees because that is very painful for both the people involved and those who are seeking help and those who are helping people look for new homes.”

“It is a last resort for us,” says Lambourne. “Our people are not being forced to leave but we want to give them that option. The government wants to give them all the tools, in terms of job training, they need so that when they decide to leave, they will go as dignified people. They won’t go as burdens to the countries receiving them. They will contribute.”

The purchase of the Fiji land and the spectre of setting up a government outpost on a remote island may also be designed with publicity in mind — an arm of President Tong’s strategy to keep Kiribati on the radar of international donor nations. There’s no doubt that Tong’s doomsday scenario for his nation — and his savvy media skills — have generated much attention for Kiribati. In late 2011 the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, also focussed international attention when he visited South Tarawa and planted mangroves to ward off sea erosion. A week earlier Tong had again garnered international headlines by putting forward a bizarre scheme that involved building floating metal islands off the Kiribati coast, at a cost of $2 billion.

Tong’s frustration — even desperation — with the slow pace of international action on climate change, even as he has his hand outstretched for its aid, is understandable.

He leads a country that barely contributes to climate change, but which has everything to lose because of it.

48 comments on this story
by John

Important documentary movie from Kiribati

April 16, 2013 @ 5:30am
by Jeff

Ridiculous article. Also makes a huge assimption that the climate change is man made. BTW, the climate has changed constantly. Just ask the folks that crossed the "land bridge" from Asia to the Americas 13,000 years ago. Time to send the Kiribati's some U-Hauls.

April 16, 2013 @ 1:16pm
by Michael Thompson

Is this a serious article? Climate change is what is dissipating the water supply? The fact that the amount of water pumped daily is already maxed out and the population is exploding have nothing to do with the problem? It seems that a 30 to 60 year prediction of fresh water loss pales in comparison to a doubling of the population in 17 years predicted if the current growth rate continues. If the population doubles the water supply will be unsustainable much sooner, seemingly without any climate impact.

April 16, 2013 @ 1:21pm
by Liam

Congrats to the author on identifying the population explosion. Normally this is glossed over in any discussion re Kiribati. A sustainable Kiribati starts with a stable population, and it may have to be significantly reduced via fertility reductions if they are to have a future. #overpopulation

April 16, 2013 @ 4:36pm
by MikeP

How about importing the contraceptive pill, condoms, IUD's etc. But having Father Martin and Sister Magella running things might prove a problem with this idea. But it might be better than the slow misery that they face.
Buying agricultural land in Fiji is not a great idea. Fiji also has a high population growth rate, and they will start to feel the same pressures that Kiribati is facing. Then they will not want food grown on their land going offshore - You can bet on that !

April 16, 2013 @ 8:05pm
by Chuck

Hmm. "Invading" Marines & sailors; and guns "transported" by the Japanese in "a world gone mad with war." . . . These mild phrases -- especially set against all the screaming jets and sparkling eyes -- say plenty about the mindset of the story & paper.

April 16, 2013 @ 8:34pm
by Phillip

Being an Australian who has, in the past, worked and resided in Kiribati I have seen first hand of climate born devastation that is encroaching on these islands and feel that the Australian government should and could be doing more to assist.

Australia already has a strong presence in Kiribati as one of the main contributors to humanitarian aid and assistance and ironically the currency of Kiribati is Australian.

For Australia to open it's doors to climate change refugees, which these people are slowly but surely becoming, should not be a big ask at all. With a population the size of Bendigo in Victoria, I can't see relocation as being an issue. Apart from the African nations and Temor mentioned in this article, Samoa and New Zealand have already agreed to open their doors to any persons wishing to relocate and those two countries have far less land than Australia.

As far as the population explosion goes they do have in place education programs but these need to be more rigorous. Every local bar you walk into has free condoms for the taking in boxes on the bar tops although this program has been more directed toward the prevention of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

As far as the workforce goes some 23% of I-Kiribati peoples are highly educated and are employed gainfully within the public service and another 50%, mainly men, are employed as seamen on German based container ships or Japanese based fishing fleets, both having training facilities in Tarawa to accommodate the training of the sea going work force. If relocation was an inevitable consequence, these workers can still retain their employment status. The remainder of the population are those either involved in self employment with the majority reliant on the wages of the seafaring relatives, mainly wives, children and elderly relatives.

Either way, time is not on their side and the devastation can only deteriorate further, especially since recently, in the last couple of weeks, scientists have reported and are gravely concerned at the rapid rate of the melting of the ice caps and the inevitable rise in sea levels that this is causing. Some even going so far as to point out that this ongoing tragedy has already gone beyond the point of no return.

April 17, 2013 @ 6:03pm
by Amy

A lower human population would equate to better quality of life for people in any country.

Stabilising populations at sustainable levels will:
-Relieve overstretched infrastructure including hospitals, schools, roads and public transport.
-Ease cost of living pressures including housing, energy, water and transport.
-Protect the environment including food, water & energy resources, native bushland & animal habitats.
-Promote education and training to increase job opportunities for all Australians.
-Minimise overdevelopment including high-rise and sprawl.
-Create a more resilient economy to sustain and enhance prosperity.

April 18, 2013 @ 11:37am
by Marita

Thanks for the article. As an I-Kiribati citizen brought up in Australia, I've seen the population explode on Tarawa and the waters rise at such a scary rate that Kiribati really needs urgent action.

Firstly, education on contraception needs to improve dramatically. However, my personal belief is that this attitude towards having children young also stems from the lack of job opportunities on the island. Due to unemployment, girls find themselves getting pregnant and starting families as young as 16 or 17 due to them believing that 'that's what women do'. And I see their point, there is nothing else to do unless you have a job to go to. More education opportunities (i.e. scholarships, internships and international exchanges) must be offered. Whilst I have said this simply and obviously costs money - you would be able to see the effects of this immediately on the island.

In terms of climate change, of course it doesn't help with water supply being taken up by more people moving to the main island of Tarawa, but you can't say this article is 'ridiculous'. People are moving to the main island due to the outer islands' land space being taken over by the rising of the water. The outer islands are pristeen and beautiful but the lack of land is forcing people to move onto the main island.

Also, I commend the writer on their research on Anote Tong. Whilst he has been a great ambassador for climate change, there are many questionable decisions that he has made that hasn't improved the country's situation (i.e. the China/Taiwan debarcle). Too many journalists gloss over this or haven't done any research and write about him as if he were faultless.

Don't write this article off, especially if you have no idea about Kiribati and its current situation. It's an uneducated comment and personally - as an I-Kiribati citizen - offensive.

If you want to read more on Kiribati have a look at:

April 19, 2013 @ 12:20pm
by Robert Bast

Quote: "The latest report for Kiribati — published by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology 24 months ago — said that the sea level was rising at the rate of 2.9 mm a year. That’s about the thickness of a wedding ring and may not seem like much, yet it is considerably above the global average sea-level increase over the past century, which was between 1 and 2 mm a year."

Is the 2.9mm per year for the last year, decade or century? Of the last week, for that matter...

For a story that fundamentally revolves around the idea of sea levels rising via global warming, that facts are poorly presented. Sea level rise can be highly variable, and without knowing more it could be that the current figures are within the realms of normality.

Or to put it another way - if normal sea level rises are between 1-2 mm per year (and sea levels have been rising for the last 12,000 years, since the last ice age), then Kiribati is doomed regardless of any global warming, the only difference is a tweak in the timetable.

April 20, 2013 @ 1:45am
by Norry.

I have difficulty understanding how some low lying atolls are experiencing rising ocean levels and some are not. Apart from the height differences of tides , I was taught and have observed over many years that water finds its own level .
Like climate change , which has been going on since the initial "Big Bang", the Earth has been changing physically as well, lands rise and fall.
I remember the ocean inundation of Kiribati being in the news decades ago, but no reference to climate change then.
By all means seek help for your situation, whether that be cash handouts or relocation ,but blaming it on fellow humans as in " Man made climate change" , and then hoping the guilt trip you lay upon them will help open their wallets , is to me rather deceitful in light of the train wreck that has been coming for decades due to greed and poor leadership.

April 20, 2013 @ 6:57am
by Norry

"several hundred pit toilets were shipped to another atoll" ! A very messy move I would imagine.
P.S. Not a lot of free speech going on in the comments section !

April 22, 2013 @ 5:14am
by Dan

the shocking truth of global warming. great photos Mike.

April 22, 2013 @ 3:56pm
by Bernard Lagan

Norry; Sea level rise varies around the world. One of the big contributors is sea temperatures . Increased sea temperatures cause thermal expansion - that is the water expands because of warming. But sea temperatures vary markedly; therefore sea level ise does , too.

April 22, 2013 @ 7:02pm
by Tauaasa Taafaki

It is quite clear that the well is empty for international insitutions to come up with solutions to the problem of climate change. The current configuration of the UN system is clearly unable and incompetent to deal with the problem and this requires a sea change in institutional re-organisation at the global level.
But thank for a very rich and ionformative article on Kiribati

April 24, 2013 @ 9:32am
by Howard Patrick

Thanks for a very well researched and written article.

It is a great shame that Julia Gillard seems unable to communicate about climate change at this level and Tony Abbott seems unable and/or unwilling to grasp the issue at even the most basic level.

April 27, 2013 @ 10:59am
by Jay

To me, Kiribati is looking like the 'canary in the coal mine'. Increasing overpopulation, dwindling fresh water reserves and arable land, climate change effects and a sluggish community response. Sounds like a familiar set of circumstances.

April 28, 2013 @ 11:35am
by Rod Glaister

By definition, coral atolls sink: that is how they form. Charles Darwin pointed this out 150 years ago. Their problem is overpopulation in a finite and sinking atoll, not climate change induced sea level rising; it is plate tectonics in action. This article may be heart rending, but it is not scientific.

April 29, 2013 @ 12:19pm
by Robyn

It hardly matters whether it is a natural sinking of the atolls or human induced climate change when the waves have drowned your village and your food crops. What does matter is where and how these people are going to live once there is not enough viable land to live on. Australia, despite hardly welcoming refugees these days, needs to step up and provide a way for large numbers to come here. Of course they can be accommodated, if only we show some humanity and basic human kindness.

April 30, 2013 @ 4:02pm
by David mackiewicz

The sad thing is that even the wealthy countries will soon be struggling for survival... there are just too many people on the earth and not enough resources tho accommodate them all. Man will survive, but with greatly reduced numbers... mostly likely followed by more boom bust cycles. It is very hard to predict. Maybe we figure itout and create world wide cooperation... seems unlikely.

May 4, 2013 @ 8:58am
by At The Bridge

The solution seems very simple! Just as in the remainder of the world, stop the belief in endless form breeding!

May 5, 2013 @ 4:13am
by leedsjon1

A distinctly worrying development - largely because what has happened is so predictable & should be a warning to the rest of the world. eg in my own country (UK) , we had our own version of a 'scare' some months ago - though this hardly compares in the scale of damage caused - a small group (about 3/4 houses) on North Yorks coastal town of Whitby had to be evacuated because they were slipping into the sea as result of coastal erosion. For a few days, this was headline news. Yet this story about what is happening in South Pacific gives us all some much needed context - if it can happen to coastal areas on other side of world, what is to stop it happening in coastal areas of other countries, even in some of most wealthy parts of the Developed world? This should be a wake up call to everybody.

May 5, 2013 @ 10:16pm
by Miner

Coral atolls of course sink - they get eroded, as does all land mass. Kiritbati seems to be doing well though....this satellite map shows no real change for many years:,-157.35992020000003,9.510624971357084

Might they be trying for a better lifestyle though massaging Western guilt?

May 16, 2013 @ 12:35pm
by Steve Frankes

What vanishing island? Strange story as no change in the island shows in the time-lapse satellite photography of the island. more climate change disinformation I guess.,-157.35992020000003,9.510624971357084

May 16, 2013 @ 1:09pm
by Peter Anderson

What makes the claims contained above so spurious is how simply they could have been 'refuted' by observation if the articles author was actually concerned! Note this time-lapse satellite photography of the island here;
for the period 1984 to 2012. Where is the problem observed, whilst the ongoing and persistent trend of ocean level rise was...and still is...within a 1 to 3 mm range. There is no problem, the above articles author should check the facts.

May 16, 2013 @ 1:27pm
by JP

This is typical fearmongering. Let me guess they want a heap of cash from the developed nations to save them from going under. How many snake oil salesman did it take to come up with this nonsense.

May 16, 2013 @ 4:39pm
by anthoni

Actually Kiribati seems to be growing in size.

May 16, 2013 @ 11:58pm
by John Coochey

It appears Andrew Bolt has completely rebutted everything in this article including using official government reports which show climate change is not the problem but general population increase and movement to one island to improve the chances of education and employment. Check out his column today and weep!

May 17, 2013 @ 8:07am
by Jon Jermey

Note to Global Mail: People will lie to you for money. Maybe you should actually check what they tell you next time.

Andrew Bolt has skewered this story and hung it out to dry here:

May 17, 2013 @ 8:54am
by Peter Anderson

What makes the claims contained above so spurious is how simply they could have been 'refuted' by observation whilst the ongoing and persistent trend of ocean level rise was, and still is, within a 1 to 3 mm range. Please regard "Monthly sea levels for KIRIBATI"
for the supposed problem does seem to be unobserved, and so many words could have been saved.

May 17, 2013 @ 2:55pm
by PeterPumpkinhead

All you commenters with your facts and logic are doing the AGW cause no good at all.

May 18, 2013 @ 8:35am
by Nick

So with the aid of satellite time lapse over a few decades,with none of the images taken at similar tide stages, and no reference to sea level shifts through ENSO mechanisms, Andrew Bolt has detected no sea level rise? Hardly surprising is it? Satellite visual imagery is not used to measure sea level change.

And I guess we can learn all we need to know about net change in water tables from space as well...

May 18, 2013 @ 4:21pm
by K Anderson

It seems the simple observation that rising seas overtaking land mass and population growth trends beyond numbers sustainable with given resources is the primary, irrefutable point here.

Where will these humans go? What about the island wildlife populations? Are there over-arching moral imperatives that compel coordinated international action?

July 11, 2013 @ 10:22pm
by carol jones

What is the commemorative ten dollar coin being sold through Macquarie Mint to Australian households worth? I is only legal tender in Kiribate??????? is this another blatant rort?

July 16, 2013 @ 2:01pm
by SlackerSlayer

One good tsunami will wipe them all out. All of you deniers in the rise of the seas, must have missed the picture up there of what used to be the towns center, under water.

July 17, 2013 @ 8:04am
by Paul Freeman

So sorry to hear that the poluting countries ignore what happens to people who try to live self sustaining lives, but not able to due to rising waters from climate change. Come to Canada. We need workers, people with skills or who are trainable. Peace, love and our prayers are with you.

July 19, 2013 @ 4:36pm
by Ann

I tried to move to Canada years ago from the U.S.A. Canada requires people to be very well educated or they won't accept you. Peace to All

August 12, 2013 @ 8:41am
by Patricia

Overpopulation is, and the growth of converting forests to feed and house billions not millions is the biggest destruction the world.

August 12, 2013 @ 2:44pm
by Ian A (Tony) Smith

A serious situation indeed. Surely poly rainwater tanks could alleviate some of the perils, provided in lieu of other less effective foreign aid. Perhaps a reference to the Wikipedia site addressing 'The Milankovitch Cycle' could update some on the more probable cause of global warming. The holy cow of burial of human remains needs addressing and a re-education of the people could help. India shows the way. Sea water encroachment has been overcome by Holland. Singapore uses the ashen remains of the island's rubbish as landfill on offshore islands. Over-population does have answers. The most precious commodity here is water. Start there and the rest will follow.

September 4, 2013 @ 4:55am
by Karen Spencer

I visited Kiribati for 2 weeks in 2004, one week on Tarawa and one on Nikunau, an outer island. It was an amazing experience. I had the distinct impression that the country was in transition, but in transition to what was the question. The answer is "to extinction."

The islands are tiny and low. There is no way anything can be done to save them. It's up to the other Pacific islands to open their borders to them in groups of 10,000, so that they can maintain their cultural identity for at least awhile longer. Like we had "little Italys" in American cities from Argentina to Canada in the early 20th century, we need to establish "little Tarawas" where the emigrants can make opportunities for themselves.

I suggest that one of the less developed Hawaii an Islands should be considered as one such site.

September 9, 2013 @ 8:23am
by Ms Robin

As Hawaii mentioned by Karen Spencer, this islands has many different people coming from different racial background. The people in Hawaii are so very much friendly and very helpful especially when someone needs help. People from different cultures worship, party, and gathering on special occasion which I believed the Kiribatese people can do the same likewise and at the same adapt themselves to the environment and probably can take employment opportunities. They are the most friendly and hardworking people on the island.

September 28, 2013 @ 6:14pm
by Mr. S.H Haroun

The issue of climate change will continue it's dominant effects on land resource by rising sea levels. It's sad that the poor island nations are most affected due to the greed of the rich nations. It's obvious that the island nation of Kiribati is facing extinction and so does it's people. Let's not let other neighbouring island nations be accountable for accommodating Kiribati's people, after all they were not to blame for the global warming effects of the planet. The people most responsible should step up and take action for this countrie's demise. It would be only appropriate for the first world nations to start accepting the Kiribatie's into their countries, after all it was these nations that contributed to global warming. Since Australia and New Zealand are the closest first world neighbours, it will be only fitting that these two nations accommodate the Kiribati people with open hands. The issue of academic achievement should not be a required criteria for acceptance. This is a matter of human survival. Australia alone is such a huge land mass which identifies itself as a continent as well. I believe that another one hundred thousand people will still leave this country much uninhabited. It's current economic position has one of the best footing in the world. I'm also aware that it has the most friendly and hard working people in the world.

November 2, 2013 @ 10:16pm
by Seriously

Kiribati's problems are not due to global warming. The water level has not risen in 20 years.

November 23, 2013 @ 12:55am
by Catherine

Such a devastating future for this poor island nation. As an Australian, I'm actively encouraging my government to do its part for global warming, including the protection of displaced peoples from island nations under threat. Australia is such a blessed, lucky country, and it's only fair that as one of the larger first world countries nearby we do all that we can to help the people of Kiribati!

November 26, 2013 @ 10:49pm
Show previous 45 comments
by John Doran

Is Kiribati sinking? Globally, sea levels are not rising above historic norms.
There has been no significant global warming for ~17 years, & globally, the incidence & severity of storms, floods etc are below historic averages.

UN "aid" programs ruining fresh water sources, & creating a scare story to back up its dying global warming, sorry, climate change scare agenda.

Bags of cash, & global "aid" corruption. More bags of cash & geopolitical pressures.

There's something very smelly going on here

December 24, 2013 @ 10:55pm
by workring in kiribati

it was with great interest that I have read this article ,while I do sympathies with the plight of the local people I feel that you have not told the whole story .You are correct that the locals tap into the water and power illegally ,I agree that a levi should be charged to off set the cost of maintaining the service. The Biggest problem here is pollution ,if that could be sorted then the country goes along way to sorting out the health problems .The other is accurate reporting ,,I have been told by people that if its not reported or recorded then its not and issue .There a majorly high number of people unemployed ,maybe some donor nation could provide funding incentive for locals to pick up all the rubbish that they just throw on the ground as they see fit instead of throwing money into think big projects . The Kiribati government needs to allow people migrate overseas as they money these people send back will provide the basis of economy. Also maybe some sort of prohibition as I have seen children as young as 9-10 absolutely drunk on the local toddy staggering around the streets. The local police force is inept to say the lest there vehicles are a disgrace ,they are hardly ever seen at night and only occasionally during the day . This is a country that once it is tidied up and not reliant heavily on the pitiful monies It gathers from the fishing permits it literally gives away can become another jewel in the pacific


December 30, 2013 @ 4:43pm
by steven moore

they seem to have two major problems, over population and global warming, much like so many other places in the world

January 18, 2014 @ 4:36pm
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