Many news stories have sent up alerts about the imminent drowning of Pacific islands. But for people living on Kiribati the real problems are happening right now.
Uriam reclined comfortably on his bwia and eyed his son-in-law, who was smiling as he shuffled up the path of the family’s home, struggling to carry a 15-horsepower Yamaha outboard motor. It was early afternoon in the family compound, and people gathered around as he set the motor on its stand. Two women lay out coconut frond mats on the ground as another man appeared, lugging a large sack. Chuckling, he dumped more than 70 fish onto the mats.
From his nearby bwia—the large, open-air structure used as both living and dining rooms in Kiribati households—78-year-old Uriam sat up and adjusted his Coke-bottle glasses.
As his lips parted into a wide, toothless grin, the head male elder of Maiana Island remarked, “Now that’s a catch,” and glanced playfully at me. I couldn’t help but feel a little shy, remembering the glum looks on the family’s faces the day before, when I had returned with my pathetic catch of six fish. I had to acknowledge that we I-matangs (Westerners) don’t share the I-Kiribati knack for fishing.
Fish is the dietary staple on the island chain nation of Kiribati, and the unloading of fish is a daily scene at Uriam’s home, but the nature of fishing has changed.
“Before, you could hang out there under the sun, no problem,” Uriam told me as his daughter began to prepare lunch. “Now, if you’re out there fishing you can feel it. Or, if you’re out working, you just feel the heat. It’s very hot.”
While there still may be plenty of fish, hotter temperatures on this equatorial atoll are just the beginning of observable climatic and environmental changes.
The previous week, I saw the devastation of another traditional source of food, the babai tuber crop, which is grown in pits. Torote, Uriam’s eldest son, stood over a barren six-foot-deep pit on the family’s land and explained that many islanders were having trouble with seawater washing overland and entering pits. It not only kills that crop, he told me; the seawater is tainting the water supply of the people.
And Not a Drop to Drink
Back on Uriam’s main property, a three-foot-wide hole awaited construction of the family’s new well. In the coming days, a group of neighbors would bring bags of coral, sand, and imported concrete to help Torote build his father a well closer to the center of the island, where water is more abundant. Their old well, across the island’s only road, had become increasingly brackish in recent years.
The availability of fresh drinking water is critical on an equatorial coral atoll. Kiribati’s slender strips of land, never more than a half-mile across and rarely more than several hundred yards, store rainwater in a freshwater lens—an underground layer of fresh water that floats atop a layer of denser ocean water. As ever-higher high tides penetrate these atolls’ porous coral foundations, they foul the only reliable source of fresh water.
When I first arrived on Kuria Island, I met Donna and Katherine, two Peace Corps volunteers, who were teaching in the island’s primary and middle schools. I asked for water, desperately hoping to rehydrate after a 26-hour boat ride on the open Pacific, and they looked at each other sheepishly. “I don’t think we have any,” Donna admitted. I was shocked. “What do people drink?” I asked. They told me that many of the wells were brackish but agreed that the well in the middle of the island near the middle school would probably have water. They lent a bicycle and five-gallon jug to a local boy to investigate the well and retrieve some water if it happened to be there. It hadn’t rained, they explained, for the past five months.
Most islanders prefer pure rainwater to brackish well water, but acquiring the several-thousand-gallon tanks to store rainwater is financially impossible for individuals. On Kuria, Peace Corps volunteers worked with local teachers to apply for a grant from New Zealand for two such tanks for their school. They received the grant and were told that the tanks would be sent from Tarawa by boat. But in the few-day journey from Tarawa, one of the tanks slipped off the boat. No replacement would come—the application process had to begin anew.
Today, one water tank sits in the center of the school compound, attached to piping from the roofs of school buildings, which collect rainwater. Without rain, however, the tank remains empty. With marginal water storage capacity, the people of Kuria will continue to rely on wells for the foreseeable future.
“Water is a serious problem,” Kiribati’s President, Anote Tong, told me. “The likely infringement of the saltwater into the freshwater lens would be a serious problem. Any substantial change in weather patterns would also be a huge problem for us. Water has always been a problem, whether the sea level was rising or not. We are a hearty breed in a sense.” He said that the I-Kiribati survive in ways people from the developed world might find hard to understand, particularly on the country’s outer islands.
Life on outer islands is so much harder than life in the capital, Tawara, that islanders are increasingly choosing urban life (“urban,” here, is a relative term).
A subsistence lifestyle, like that practiced on the outer islands, is necessarily climate dependant. Those who live directly off the land will be most affected by climate change. These people are the world’s small-scale farmers, herders, and fishermen—people whose livelihoods depend on annual climatic constants.
The frustrating reality is that those who need protection most from the immediate effects of climate change tend to live in countries like Kiribati that are least equipped to provide it. Whereas the larger, industrialized countries responsible for over 80 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions can develop new technologies or move people to higher altitudes if coastal lands are flooded, the peoples of the small island nations do not have such options.
Though many I-Kiribati are making simple changes like transitioning babai out of their diet because it is increasingly difficult to grow, some islanders are already beginning to feel the more severe environmental and climatic changes.
“Because of the heat,” says a woman named Tarai on Kuria Island, “the coconuts dry up in the tree, and it’s very hard [for them] to fall.” Many islanders like Tarai and her family rely on revenue from the sale of dried coconut meat, or copra, the nation’s leading export. The four-day process of producing copra garners roughly $25 for one harvest.
Coconut palms not only generate income but also provide food, both for people and livestock; toddy (a sweet drink used extensively in I-Kiribati cooking that also becomes alcoholic when fermented); and materials for mats, roof thatch, rope, and firewood. Without coconuts, the I-Kiribati traditional lifestyle becomes impossible.
On southern Maiana, high tides have overrun seawalls, destroying a major coconut plantation and creating a barren stretch of land locals call the Lake. Locals complain of the increasingly frequent need to repair the handmade coral seawalls that, in some cases, are their only shield against higher tides. Uriam told me that in the past few decades, they have rebuilt the main seawall three times.
In February 2007, a king tide washed up 50 yards inland on Kuria. This tide, which brought water up to people’s waists, forced islanders like Tarai’s daughter to relocate their families farther inland. Tarai’s daughter abandoned five buildings on her family’s property.
While Tarai’s family was fortunate to own a large swath of land on Kuria, for most families on outer islands, moving inland is more difficult. On the more crowded capital island, relocation is out of the question.
Today, South Tarawa is reeling under the weight of the now-more-than 50,000 residents. As half of the nation’s population crowds onto the capital island, its resources are heavily strained. With no functioning sewage system, islanders do as they always have and use the sheltered waters of the lagoon as a toilet. With so many people resorting to this method, the lagoon now has dangerously high levels of bacteria, and there is widespread disease too severe for the island’s two hospitals to handle. Human rights workers have estimated that over 95 percent of children have intestinal worms.
A People Without a Place
President Tong understands only too well the imminent nature of the rising sea level and its predicted effects on his country. He told me the international community has been blind to the current and future problems Kiribati is experiencing with rising sea level and threatened water reserves.
“There’s nothing we can do about reversing the process [of global warming],” he told me, “We’ve screamed, we’ve shouted at international fora, but with very little effect. But in terms of how we will respond to the impact of climate change—yes indeed, we do have a number of options. We must have a number of options.”
From what I witnessed, it seemed to me the only option would one day be mass migration. I cautiously introduced the topic of the I-Kiribati as environmental refugees with President Tong. He acknowledged the sensitive nature of the issue but added, “I hesitate to call our people refugees: we would train them, and they would become people who would contribute to whatever country they choose to live in with meaningful lives.”
Back on Maiana, Uriam also reflected on the fate of Kiribati: “When it’s time, I think our people will evacuate the island, Kiribati.” He grinned and added, “They will probably go to America or Australia or New Zealand.” Immediately his smile faded and he turned, staring off toward the lagoon.
An astute leader, President Tong fears that the situation will reach crisis level before the international community takes notice. “Can we remain nationals of Kiribati when we are living in Australia?” he asks. “What would be our citizenship? Do we still have sovereignty of Kiribati when there is no longer the country of Kiribati? These are issues that I think at this point nobody is ready yet to address.”
While President Tong’s concerns may remain unaddressed for decades, the realities of immigration from low-lying island nations are surfacing in international politics. Currently, New Zealand is the only country accepting I-Kiribati immigrants. Speaking to the New Zealand deputy high commissioner to Kiribati, I learned that each year they accept 75 I-Kiribati along with several hundred other Pacific islanders, such as Tongans and Tuvaluans. Immigrants must demonstrate a means for supporting themselves, though the New Zealand government will help with assimilation. The deputy commissioner stressed that this is a “good neighbor policy” and, as of now, New Zealand has no official policy concerning environmental refugees.
Kiribati’s fishing rights are an important consideration, given the prospect of mass migration. Most developed countries will not accept a significant number of refugees from any nation without something in return. However, Kiribati has a significant natural resource: an ocean of 1.31 million square miles that includes very lucrative commercial fishing grounds.
Revenue from the sale of fishing rights is a critical portion of Kiribati’s gross national product. Many major countries in the Pacific Rim, including Australia and Taiwan, currently covet these fishing rights, a situation that brings new weight to President Tong’s questions of sovereignty in the face of environmental disaster. Who would control fishing rights on this massive stretch of ocean, if the zone in question included no habitable land?
The night I returned to South Tarawa from Kuria, I noticed an eerie string of lights on the horizon. They were sodium vapor work lights of large Taiwanese fishing boats stationed in the lagoon to fish for tuna for the next month.
As the conspicuous ships in the lagoon suggest, the Taiwanese have maintained a prominent presence in Kiribati since President Tong established diplomatic ties in 2003. Like many other Pacific island nations, Kiribati has taken advantage of tension between Taiwan and China, exchanging recognition of Taiwan for aid.
Since then, Taiwan has built numerous small gardens and several fisheries on South Tarawa as part of an agricultural aid program. They have also donated two large trucks and two pickup trucks to each of the outer islands, along with a small fleet of trucks for South Tarawa. These trucks, with “From Taiwan” painted on the doors, serve all transportation needs for outer islanders.
While Taiwanese aid projects may be the most visible, other foreign donors also contribute large sums. Australia, the biggest donor, supplies $15 million a year, with another $4 million coming from New Zealand. Kiribati’s national budget, including aid, is about $65 million.
Aid from Japan took a different form. Occupiers of South Tarawa during World War II, the Japanese have since built a two-mile-long concrete berm connecting the most populous islet, Betio (pronounced Base-oh), to the rest of South Tarawa.
A coral atoll, the rim of an extinct volcano, is often a string of islets instead of a continuous strip of land. Unobstructed ocean water filters in and out of an atoll’s lagoon, providing a natural cleaning process. In the case of South Tarawa, the berm effectively sealed off the lagoon. While the connection was a boon for business and transportation, the berm has significantly altered currents, making it impossible for the lagoon to flush completely, creating a stinking cesspool.
Another environmental consequence of the berm is the disappearance of Bikeman Island in the center of Tarawa lagoon. Over the past 10 years, changing ocean currents have transformed Bikeman from a verdant, popular, day-trip destination into a desolate patch of sand that only emerges at low tide. Foreigners and environmental activists want to use Bikeman’s disintegration as evidence of rising sea levels, but locals tend to blame the causeway.
Because of all the development efforts, life in Kiribati exists within the balance between a desire for modernity and the appeal and comfort of tradition. The influx of televisions and DVD players, modern junk food and Western movies is fueling an exodus from the outer islands. But Kiribati is not suffering from the brain-drain that often accompanies much of the push toward modernity. Certainly, for the vast majority of I-Kiribati on the outer island, who live at a subsistence level, moving out of the country unaided is an economic impossibility. But moving away is not necessarily appealing, anyway.
The lure of the I-Kiribati lifestyle remains undeniable. The slow pace of life on the outer islands, where there is little need for money, possessions, or work, beyond gathering food and tending the land, seems to be enough to keep older generations away from South Tarawa.
Education beyond the middle school level, however, is only available on a few outer islands. The same is true for job opportunities. For outer islanders looking for more education or work for wages, moving to South Tarawa is the only option.
Kiribati Steps Up to the Plate
On my first night on Maiana the town’s greeting council, a group of middle-aged women, threw a botaki, or party, for me. Every guest at a botaki is expected to give a speech. When it was my turn, I told the women, who were dressed in matching homemade outfits and garlands of fresh flowers, that I was there to learn about Kiribati culture in the face of climate change. I explained climate change to them, and their immediate reaction shocked me. If burning gas is contributing to climate change, one woman said matter-of-factly, then we should use our generators less. The others nodded in agreement.
Kiribati uses the fourth-smallest amount of oil of any country in the world and both produces and uses the sixth-lowest amount of electricity. Yet, when these women learned that their actions, however insignificant, might contribute to climate change and affect others around the world, their first reaction was to reduce their own consumption.
In the face of devastating climatic changes, the I-Kiribati people remain optimistic. Most are not ready to discuss the eventuality of leaving their homes or the realities of how they will define their culture once outside their borders. Until such a time, the I-Kiribati, like Uriam and Tarai’s families, will continue to adapt as best they can.
Casey Beck and Austin Blair are recent graduates of Tufts University. See more of their work at www.therisingtidekiribati.org.