Private Islands for sale – this could soon be written on the Islands of Kiribati.
Anyway – nobody will buy it, presumably.
Climate change on Kiribati: A nation in decline
Poisoned drinking water, destructive storm surges.
In Kiribati, the consequences of global warming are not theory but existence-threatening reality
God – it seems – has forgotten the people of Kiribati. Sea level rise is unstoppable, scientists say, even if the world manages to keep global warming below two degrees, as agreed in Paris in 2015.
So it is probably only a matter of time until even in Tabiteuea the seawater seeps into the drinking-water-lens and salted it.
“Our people suffer every day. First, the children would get sick, and then the vegetables will die in the garden”, people say. “And what do we do then?” They ask themselves with a tone of despair in their voice.
People there symbolize a country that feels betrayed by the world. “We cannot wait longer for help,” President Taneti Mamau also appealed to the international community in New York City in September 2018. “Every day our people are suffering from the effects of the creeping climate catastrophe”.
A catastrophe in which the people of Kiribati are least to blame. Kiribati with its 118. 000 inhabitants, is located about halfway between Fiji and Hawaii. It consists of 33 coral atolls and islands, spread over a sea area as big as the United States of America.
Researchers in Kiribati measure the sea level since 1983. Over the last 25 years, scientists have found a sea level rise of up to 5.7 mm annually. The level-increase is one of many consequences of global warming.
In combination with increasingly frequent storm surges, for the low-lying islands of the Pacific, an increase in the level of just a few millimeters is an existential threat. Most Kiribati atolls are just one to three meters above sea level.
The country threatens to be swallowed by the sea in this century, scientists estimate.
One of the poorest countries, South Tarawa, the administrative center of Kiribati: A collection of concrete houses, offices, a stadium. Now and then a small shop, nailed together out of plywood. Traders sell dry noodles from Indonesia, Taiwan tuna cans, and self-caught fish.
The people of Kiribati primarily live from self-sufficiency and from planting coconut. You do not see luxury here. Almost. Only the churches bear witness to wealth, especially the large, bright white buildings of the Mormons.
Scientists predict that Kiribati will fall victim to climate change as one of the first nations in the world. The country is one of the poorest in the world, the UN say, a so-called least developed nation.
Experts compare the state of development with the situation in Afghanistan and Haiti. Children die of diarrhea and dysentery. The infant mortality rate is higher than in Bangladesh. Without development aid from Australia, New Zealand and the EU, the situation would be even grim.
South Tarawa, like almost every settlement in Kiribati, runs along a single road that lies in the middle of the narrow coral island. On the left the water of the lagoon, on the right the waves of the open sea slosh onto the sand. In some places, the distance from shore to shore is just as far as a football field.
The physics of climate change is complex, but its effects are everywhere in Kiribati. Two uninhabited islands disappeared under water in 1999. “A bridge was simply washed away by the sea,” people tell. Concrete and steel – against the rising tide, the hammering waves they have no chance.
The “royal wave” after full moon.
It was a normal afternoon, they say. “The breeze was not strong, but the sea was wild.” People would talk about a “tsunami” later, but that’s not true. It was a “royal wave”, a “King Tide”, which can arise directly after the full moon, when the difference between high tide and low tide is the largest. “King tides have always existed, but in the past they were not that strong.” Within minutes the water had entered the hospital. “As if the sea wanted to eat us,” people recall.
The hospital beds were pushed against the wall by the water. Women had to wade through knee-high mud, pressed their babies to the chest.
When the sea receded, the rusty wreck of a fishing boat lay on the shore in front of the village of Betio. The waves had ripped the ship out of the water.
Fate sometimes can be cynical. A woman at the fish market laughs contentedly. Her husband has brought home several moray eels today.
Scientists warn the world what to expect. According to the oceanography professor Stefan Rahmstorf of the University of Potsdam, the IPCC had already warned in 2013 about a global sea-level rise of 28 to 98 centimeters in this century.
Locally, there are a number of causes, the expert writes, “but the main cause is human-induced global warming.” As a result, not only sea water does expand – the land ice masses, such as the glaciers in the mountains, would melt. “The large ice sheets on Greenland and the Antarctic meanwhile lose an amount of ice each year that corresponds to a multiple of Mount Everest”.
A drive through Tarawa shatters the cliché of the lovely South Sea Island. Dying palm plantations bear witness to the destructive power of salt water. Even in a light wind, seawater penetrates into the fields and into the gardens. The process of dying begins. Breadfruit trees and coconut palms only have a limited tolerance threshold when it comes to salt content in soil. Soon the leaves turn brown. Then the plant is dead.
In a pool of seawater there is the skeleton of an abandoned house. Hundreds of farmer-families have lost their livelihood on Kiribati in recent years, and thus their homeland. The country loses an important source of income: dried coconut – so-called copra – is one of the few export products.
Along the central street
Simple houses on both sides. Children play, a mother sings. Everyone has to build protective walls, because concrete is expensive.
The atoll is already one of the most densely populated places on the globe – denser than New York and Hong Kong. According to conservative forecasts, the number of inhabitants in South Tarawa is expected to rise from 50,000 today to 80,000 by 2050.
The majority of these people are climate refugees from other parts of the archipelago. Displaced by the sea. On the most beautiful beaches of Kiribati not only the sea shines in the light of the evening sun, but also aluminum of a Coca-Cola can. No effective waste disposal.
Along the beach – this is perhaps the most obvious consequence of the settlement pressures: mountains of garbage. Styrofoam dishes, plastic forks, a tin can. Kiribati needs to import almost all products, but does not have an effective waste disposal system.
This reflects the limitless world of consumption in a pond on the beach. Between the roots of a dying coconut palm, the silver paper of Wrigley chewing gum is cemented to the plastic packaging of a DHL courier shipment. Children swim between Nestlé’s empty water bottles and Tampax toiletries.
Even cars – mostly used cars from Japan – are disposable products. Once broken, they remain as rusty wrecks on the roadside. Loading the garbage onto ships and transporting it to Australia or New Zealand over thousands of miles would be far too expensive.
Ex-president Anote Tong: “It’s going to get a lot worse than my people think here,” he says. Climate skeptics who need to know better, he compares with criminals.
Trash as protection against water
Waste becomes a building material against the ingress of water. After a few days in tropical sun, plastic bags burst open. Emaciated dogs sprinkle the contents over the sand, and into the water.
Anote Tong was president of Kiribati until last year. At night, he returned home from a visit to Europe. Preparatory talks for the climate conference in Bonn. In international forums, Tong is the best-known voice of the South Pacific. A man driven by hope, frustration, despair – and anger.
Anger on rich industrialized countries. The climate gas emissions of Kiribati are the third lowest in the world per capita. Americans pump 45 times more into the atmosphere. But people in the Pacific would suffer most from the consequences, he says.
Anote Tong sees himself on a mission: he has to convince the world to finally take the problem of climate change seriously.
But what can WE do? We feel so unconscious facing these huge changes.
We can do little steps. Step by step. If everyone does, the steps will become bigger.
Let’s donate a tree – or let’s start in our kitchen by using organic cleaners. That’s what we can do withing our little world.
” To do nothing is immoral”, he says
So-called climate change skeptics he compares with criminals, “because they know exactly that they are lying”. The same applies to the advocates of the climate-damaging coal industry.
For Anote Tong, “disappearance is not an option.” Disappearance is not an option to low-lying countries like Kiribati. But do they even have a chance to survive in the long term? Tong wants to believe it. “The alternative would be that our country disappears.”
Anyway – he prepares Kiribati to flee. His government bought land in neighboring, mostly higher Fiji, where his people could settle when life at home is no longer possible.
Even the construction of artificial sand islands – with Dubai as a model – Tong has considered. But that is too expensive.
Despite the existential problems, most people in Kiribati seem contented and almost naively carefree. Isolated from the rest of the world, with little access to information, many are unaware of the future of their homeland, Tong says.
“It gets a lot worse than my people believe here,” he says, “having read thousands of expert reports, I do not tell them what the reality looks like, why should I make them sad, you cannot change that anyway”.
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