The vanishing of a tropical nation

Rising seas are swamping the 33-island republic of Kiribati. Where will its 100,000 inhabitants go when their country becomes uninhabitable?


Aaron Selverston
April 14, 2006 3:00PM (UTC)

From 10,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, the tropical island of Tarawa resembles the final, vanishing sliver of a waning moon -- a razor-thin curve of shimmering green floating in a vast dark ocean.

At 1,000 feet, a coconut forest emerges -- a carpet of thick green fans swaying in the wind. On the inner edge of the crescent-shaped island is a sliver of white sand; within the arc of sand, the luminescent blue-green lagoon.

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On the beach, a collection of brown thatch-hut dwellings appears, scattered near the shore. A man is walking on the sand, amid soiled diapers, plastic bottles and assorted other rubbish. The shoreline has changed radically in the 30 years since he last came to this spot, the site of his childhood home. Dr. Uentabo MacKenzie is a Tarawa native, which means he has grown accustomed to Tarawa's sanitation problems. Today, MacKenzie's attention is focused directly in front of him, by his feet, where two small concrete blocks poke up out of the sand.

"This is the foundation of the house I grew up in," MacKenzie says. Turning to his right, he gestures toward the area between him and the lagoon. "This is my old playground. I remember we used to play soccer here, only [the beach] used to go out much further, maybe 30 or 40 yards."

Many of the 33 islands that make up the Republic of Kiribati are facing severe erosion. On Tarawa, MacKenzie says, a long causeway connecting the main part of Tarawa to the islet of Betio has had the effect of changing the circulation in the lagoon and, subsequently, the shape of the coastline. He also says that on Tarawa and the outer islands, manmade sea walls often have the unintended consequence of pushing sand away from the beaches, weakening an important buffer against tidal surge.

But sea walls and causeways are, unfortunately, minor players compared with the greater force affecting the people of Kiribati: global climate change.

MacKenzie authored a World Bank report on the social impacts of climate change here, and he directs the Kiribati branch of the University of South Pacific. He says that in addition to noticing the erosion, people have begun complaining of hotter temperatures, less variety and quantity of fish, changes in wind patterns, and the contamination of fresh groundwater by saltwater from the Pacific Ocean -- evidence of rising sea levels.

A previous World Bank report found that up to 80 percent of North Tarawa, as well as more than 50 percent of the densely populated South Tarawa, could be under water by 2050 as a result of global warming. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which represents the consensus on climate science, agrees that Kiribati is highly vulnerable. Stretching over 2.1 million square miles of ocean midway between Australia and Hawaii, Kiribati comprises only 504 square miles of land, making the country less than half the size of Rhode Island. The IPCC report predicts that a one-meter rise in sea level could wipe out 63 of those square miles.

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Sea-level rise is "by far the greatest threat to small island states," according to the IPCC, and due to rising sea levels, "beach erosion and coastal land loss, inundation, flooding, and salinization of coastal aquifers and soils will be widespread."

The IPCC reported in 2003 that global sea levels have been rising almost an inch per decade in the 20th century, and will likely rise between three and nine feet in the century ahead.

Furthermore, the IPCC numbers account for hardly any glacial melt. A Science magazine report from February of this year found that Greenland's massive ice shelf, which contains nearly 10 percent of the world's freshwater supply, is losing mass two to three times faster than previously thought. The author of the Science report says the IPCC predictions "are probably low," and that sea-level rise is likely to be two to three times as great, which could mean a rise of anywhere from six to 27 feet in the next hundred years.

The islands of the Republic of Kiribati, currently home to nearly 100,000 people, average only six feet above sea level.

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"I have no doubt that these islands will be inundated," says MacKenzie, "or if they're not inundated, that the livelihood of people will be very difficult, because [climate change] will affect saltwater incursion into our water tables, it will affect our plant life, and it will affect the water we drink."

MacKenzie gazes off to the right toward the curving line of coconut palms spanning the 40-mile coast of the lagoon before him. Beads of sweat cross his brow, and he raises a hand to shield his eyes from the sun.

"It's interesting," he says. "People on the islands have begun to measure erosion according to how many rows of coconut trees have died back. There used to be three rows of trees here" -- he points to the open, sandy beach -- "but now they are gone."

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MacKenzie admires the development projects brought to Kiribati by Western nations -- most significantly England, the country's former colonial master. But he can't help but feel that his people are being unfairly disadvantaged because of global warming.

"We don't cause climate change," he says. "It was something that was caused from outside our world over which we have no control. But ultimately we will be the first victims of it."

Anote Tong, president of the Republic of Kiribati, shares MacKenzie's concern.

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"For us it's a matter of survival," Tong says. "We seriously cannot discuss issues of development if in the longer term we are facing an issue of survival. So no matter how much we develop in the next decades, if in 50 years' time we're going to go under, what is the purpose of it all?"

Despite Tong and MacKenzie's belief that these islands will inevitably be washed away, the people here, known as I-Kiribati (pronounced "Eee-Kiribas"), are more preoccupied with the immediate environmental changes. The health of the coconuts is of paramount concern. For Westerners, the coconut may be a clichéd symbol of tropical paradise, but for I-Kiribati, the coconut quite literally equates to survival -- especially for those living on the outer islands, where imported goods are scarce.

Mikaio Rorobuaka sits upon a stone and mortar sea wall in Eita, a village on Tarawa. Wearing a sky-blue collared shirt and brown shorts, he has the gentle, grandfatherly air of a man who has fully enjoyed the richness of life and relishes telling you about it. He's also an unimane -- an elder patriarch and spiritual leader. As the turquoise-brown waters of the Tarawa lagoon slosh against the sea wall below him, Mikaio becomes almost reverential on the subject of the coconut.

"The coconut is a symbol of life and the survival of the people of Kiribati," he says. "From the coconut palm, nearly everything a person needs can be provided. Coconut provides food and drink, medicine, dancing skirts, shelter ... and these days, coconut is one of the main exports of Kiribati."

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Indeed, the coconut pulls more than $20 million into Kiribati annually and accounts for nearly two-thirds of total export revenue. And though Mikaio believes that climate change has begun taking its toll on the coconut trees, he still thinks they will outlive the other plants.

"Over the last 50 years or so, I've noticed a lot of changes. It's getting hotter and hotter every year -- yet still the coconut palm survives. I think the coconut palm will be the last tree to survive, even if there is disaster caused by global warming."

Sea-level rise is already taking its toll on coconuts, however, by causing erosion and freshwater contamination, according to MacKenzie. The precise location of an individual tree determines its condition: Erosion affects the coconut trees along the coastline, killing them off row by row and sending them into the ocean; water contamination, however, affects trees living over sensitive groundwater reservoirs. When the coconuts "drink the salty water" (as the I-Kiribati say), it makes the fruit smaller and saltier, or kills them entirely.

There is little in the way of conclusive scientific research directly linking global warming to dying coconuts. However, IPCC scientists do say that erosion and freshwater contamination -- the conditions that locals claim are killing the trees -- will likely occur in many small-island states in the South Pacific over the next century.

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The larger problem of rising sea levels is more difficult for some I-Kiribati to accept. Mikaio says there are three groups of people in Kiribati: one that believes sea levels are rising quickly and will totally submerge the islands within 50 years, another that thinks it's happening much more slowly but will nonetheless eventually have the same result, and a third group that believes that God will protect them, so they need not worry.

"The third group of people," says Mikaio, "are those who are very religious. They believe in what the Bible says. During the time of Noah, there was a flood, and the Ark was built to save good people -- Noah's family, animals -- but when the flood stopped, God made a promise to Noah not to make any more floods happen. So the Christians and most of the religious people in Kiribati are aware that there's global warming -- they experience it as well, and they understand that it could happen -- but still they believe that God's promise will always be there and no flood will ever happen."

Mikaio says that many Christians in Kiribati are often reminded of God's promise when it rains.

"A rainbow is a sign they always see when it's raining. And it reminds them whenever they see it in the sky -- it's a symbol of God's promise that there won't be a flood."

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It's about 10 a.m., and it's already starting to get warm. Fifty miles southwest of Tarawa, Tam Tamere floats in a small yellow boat, cleaning the spark plugs of his 40-horsepower Yamaha outboard motor. A wall of dark green mangroves shelters the boat, keeping the waters calm. He is about to embark on a journey that he hopes will illuminate many of the problems facing his people, including freshwater contamination, ailing coconuts, and a reduction in the quantity and variety of fish.

This is the lagoon of Abemama atoll, an island of 3,500 residents that is vastly more remote, clean and lush than the overpopulated capital island of Tarawa. The expanse of green coconut palms, empty streets and pristine, lush foliage in Abemama makes Tarawa seem like Manhattan by comparison.

Whereas causeways, sea walls, and other manmade projects have led to erosion and other damage on Tarawa, there is very little in the way of development on Abemama. But residents here are feeling the effects of climate change, too.

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Tam gently navigates the wooden boat out of the shallow pale-green waters on his way out to fish. Soon the white ocean floor drops off and the water turns a deep emerald. Ten minutes later, the little boat is soaring across the tops of wind-churned swells toward a little islet at the edge of the reef.

Like MacKenzie, Tam also senses something different in the air.

"Well, the climate change," he says. "What we know now is, it's getting hot." Indeed, the IPCC report notes that global air temperatures have risen almost a full degree Fahrenheit in the past century, and could increase as much as 10 degrees in the next.

As the boat approaches the shore of the islet, Tam uses his leg to steer and puts the finishing touches on his fishing lure by straightening some chicken feathers and affixing them to the heavy nylon line. Once the boat moves into the surf, Tam kills the engine, jumps overboard, and pulls his boat onshore. Marching up the sand, he puts three saltine crackers into his pocket.

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"Now we are going to visit the good man, the short man, here," he says. "Before you go out fishing, you need to visit this short man."

Leaning down as he walks, he holds his hand about a foot off the ground and says, "The short man is about this size. He is short. Very, very short. And he lived here -- he ruled this islet before -- and any people or visitors coming in, they need to come and see him, and greet him."

Tam ambles down a trail through the dense coconut forest; after a while, the trail runs into a single large coconut tree. At the base of the tree is a shrine, in the center of which is a small stone statue of a man, about a foot tall. He wears two beaded necklaces and is surrounded by a ring of volcanic rocks. Inside the ring, in front of him, are three enormous clamshells.

"You have to bring him some gift," explains Tam. "Normally they give him tobacco -- I don't know why, but that's what they use. But you can give anything you have." Squatting down, Tam lifts one of the shells and deposits the crackers.

"We give gifts to Kopunon in order to save us while we are out at the ocean fishing or catching what we need. So Kopunon is now with us to protect us from any trouble."

Tam smiles, turns around, and starts walking back the way he came. Soon, he passes a small stone well alongside the trail and stops for a drink. Inside the well, the surface of the water is barely six feet below his feet.

In the United States, freshwater wells are usually much deeper, but in Kiribati, shallow wells are the norm. Freshwater here literally floats on top of the denser saltwater, rather than being stored in protected aquifers -- which is why freshwater supplies are so vulnerable. Because freshwater is lighter than saltwater and shrinks under increased pressure, every inch of sea-level rise pushes the bottom of the freshwater lens 40 inches closer to the surface. This shift forces I-Kiribati to rely increasingly on water they catch from rain, and the storage tanks they use are expensive and small, and their contents wouldn't last through a long drought.

Droughts are doubly harmful, because a decrease in rainfall also means less water to replenish the groundwater lenses, allowing the saltwater to encroach even further.

The dearth of freshwater is the direst and most immediate climate-change-related problem facing I-Kiribati, and the IPCC predicts drought conditions will intensify as a result of global warming. Already, many I-Kiribati, including Tam, have begun reporting a decrease in rainfall. Standing now over this well of freshwater, Tam pulls up a full bucket of water and pours it down his shirt and over his head, then lowers it down for a refill.

"This is the only water you can get on this islet," he says. "Only this well gets freshwater ... because of him, you know" -- he points back toward Kopunon -- "that's what they say. This is Kopunon's well, so the water is always fresh."

Back on the boat, Tam throttles the engine into high speed and zooms out of the lagoon, past the reef and into the open waters of the Pacific. Steering with his left hand, he drops the feathered lure into the water with his right, letting the line slip freely between his thumb and index finger.

As the boat digs into the open faces of the growing swells, crashing through whitewash, Tam grips his line with one bare, clenched fist. After about 10 minutes, he gets a tug and quickly stops the boat. With his left hand now free, he pulls in the line, hand over hand, and moments later a sparkling silver skipjack tuna comes flying out of the water. He dangles it momentarily, raises one wary eyebrow, and tosses it into a small hold in the middle of the boat. The fish lands with a dull thud. It weighs less than five pounds.

Tam has noticed a marked drop in both the quantity and size of the tuna catch in recent years, as have many fishermen in Kiribati, according to MacKenzie. It used to be easy to bring back a full-grown adult yellowfin or skipjack tuna, one that could feed an entire family. But the fish are disappearing, partly because occasional Korean and Japanese trawlers sweep through these waters at night and also, possibly, because of global warming.

The currents are getting warmer, according to Tam, luring the tuna further offshore. The Secretariat of the Pacific Community, an international development agency, says that global warming could push tuna to higher latitudes, decrease their productivity, and increase the variability of catches.

After hooking that first skipjack, Tam drives the boat through whitewash against a strong current, trawling for hours, but nothing bites. Finally, after the fifth hour, he gives up and heads home.

Returning to Abemama's lagoon, Tam anchors the boat about 20 yards offshore, steps into the shallow water, and wades to the beach, holding his fish. He walks down a dirt road to his home in a small enclave of thatched huts nestled snugly in a grove of coconut palms. He is greeted by a group of children, some of them his own, then makes his way to his water pump, where he splashes his face and has a drink.

"Mmm freshwater," he says. "Good freshwater." He explains that this water has to be pumped in from a neighbor's well, since his own has become brackish after an extensive drought.

Recently, like other I-Kiribati, he has also noticed that his coconut trees are beginning to suffer.

"When the place is getting salty water, then the coconuts are getting smaller," he says, pointing at a coconut on one of his trees. "For example, that one there, that red one, it's not a very big one, ah? It's very small. And that's the reason why: because the water is not so good, the tree does not produce big fruit."

As for the larger problems ahead, Tam insists on maintaining a high spirit. Lifting the collar of his polo shirt to dry his face, he smiles warmly.

"We might live like fish, you know," he says. "But we pray hard not to live like that."

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Back on Tarawa, it's Dec. 28, three days before the new year. The clocks in Kiribati will be the first in the world to click over to 2006. But for now, President Tong sits in the VIP Lounge of Bonriki International Airport, the engines of his government airplane still cooling down after a long flight from the outer island of Butaritari.

Tong says it won't take much more in the way of climate change to push his islands beyond the point of no return. "We've lost our community buildings, we've lost roads ... the weather patterns have changed. But the point we continue trying to make is that we only need that minor change to occur in Kiribati, and we will no longer be there.

"I think the international community has a responsibility, because where the other countries are now, they've benefited from destroying the environment, and now we are paying the ultimate price." Tong is counting on foreign nations to be ready to help Kiribati in the event of a worst-case scenario.

Global warming "puts us in a very, very difficult position," he says. "Perhaps not my generation, but a generation or two generations from now, I think we're seriously talking about relocation."

Tong believes that the science behind global warming is conclusive enough to suggest that the rise in sea levels is not preventable. If he is correct, it will be up to other nations to act as hosts to more than 100,000 people when the time comes to move. And according to Anthony Adamthwaithe, a professor of international history at UC-Berkeley, no sovereign nation has ever peacefully moved its entire population to another country.

"It's historically unprecedented," he says.

I-Kiribati aren't yet sure where they will go. For now, Tong is placing his bets on New Zealand and Australia.

"I think there is more than enough land available," he says, "except that countries that own land don't want to give it up. I mean, we're a small community ... we only need a small piece of land to survive."

The relocation is likely to be a tough sell for New Zealand and Australia. But MacKenzie feels that if the citizens of those countries think about Kiribati from a humanitarian perspective, the I-Kiribati's future may look brighter. In his office at the University of the South Pacific in Tarawa, MacKenzie leans back in his chair and takes a deep, thoughtful breath.

"We have a common heritage," he says, "and we have to work together as a human race to help those who are less fortunate, living on small vulnerable islands like ours. When we look at it, changes that are exacerbated by developing countries ... the impacts may not be that great on them, but it is the small countries like us whose very existence is in question."


Read other articles in the Early Signs: Reports from a Warming Planet directory.


Aaron Selverston

Aaron Selverston is a freelance journalist. This story was reported in a joint production of Salon, NPRs "Living on Earth" and UC-Berkeleys Graduate School of Journalism.

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