Kiribati – the first country that will cease to exist as a result of climate change. It is classified as a low-income country, with a GNI per capita equal to approximately $3,400 in 2019. Sea level rise is an existential threat to the state that is home to around 120,000 people. Of this number, around a half live in South Tarawa, the capital and hub of the Republic of Kiribati. Its population density is equal to 3,578 people per kilometer per square – a value close to the ones of Tokyo and Hong Kong. The overpopulation of the place results in the arising of numerous socio-economic issues, which are only multiplied by the disastrous effects of climate change.
In the 1990s, two of Kiribati’s islands – Abanuea and Tebua Tarawa – were swallowed up by the sea, which was supposed to be an ally, not an enemy. Storm surges’ frequency has significantly increased since then – they happen once a month. Agriculture and fishery are the main sources of income for the inhabitants of the islands. As it is commonly known, such work fields are dependent on external conditions that a human being cannot control, but climate change, being considered a threat multiplier and caused by increased and unsustainable human activity, negatively affects the fishery sector and results in reduced agricultural productivity.
Figure 1: Village on South Tarawa atoll, Kiribati, Gilbert islands, Micronesia, Oceania. Credit to maloff [Shutterstock].
The Republic of Kiribati is responsible for just 0.6% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Bearing in mind the visible lack of crucial climate action that should be taken by world leaders, the country is likely to suffer even more in the nearest future. The increased frequency of tsunamis is a threat to Kiribati’s population as the seawater contaminates freshwater reserves, kills crops, and floods homes.
In 2014, the government decided to purchase a block of land in Fiji that may serve as a refuge for the people of Kiribati, displaced by the disappearance of their country due to the rising sea levels. The place was supposed to hold up to 70,000 people; however, the plan had recently shifted when the new president of Kiribati, Taneti Maamau, who was elected in 2016, proposed a plan to use the land to grow food for Kiribati, as nearly all of the vegetables consumed are imported, and the obesity is a major problem for the islands’ inhabitants.
Unfortunately, most solutions for climate change adaptation that are recognized and utilized by the people of Kiribati are short-term, illustrating the inability to tackle the issue effectively without the help of more economically developed countries. The cost of building a desalination plant that could solve the issue of insecure access to fresh water is approximately $250 million, which is more than the Gross Domestic Product of Kiribati in 2021. Mangrove planting is considered another solution, but planting them in the wrong area may threaten the local ecosystem. Using coral rock, sandbags or concrete blocks, people also build seawalls to protect themselves and their houses from flooding. However, seawalls come with a cost. These structures can block the natural flow of sand, resulting in the enhanced soil erosion process nearby. This explains why building seawalls are ineffective in the long run, as they do not tackle the problem directly.
Figure 2: Residents of a village in South Tarawa waded through the water during high tides that flooded the region, leaving homes isolated until the waters receded. Credit to Josh Haner [The New York Times].
The people of Kiribati struggle every day to survive. They do not want to leave their homes, but in the near future, it may turn out to be a necessity. The original inhabitants – I-Kiribati – first appeared on the islands around 1000 AD. Such a legacy must not be undermined. The People of Kiribati are attached to their traditions and culture, which is one of the main reasons for their unwillingness to give up. Migration is associated with the lack of possibility to celebrate and cultivate traditions by the communities, which are likely to be divided between various regions. Internal displacement is also an issue in the Republic, as many people flee to nearby villages due to the flooding. From 2008 to 2021, there were 2,605 Internally Displaced People, most of whom were victims of flooding and cyclones (such as Cyclone Pam – the second most intense tropical cyclone of the South Pacific Ocean).
Multiple questions arise. How can we ensure the security of Kiribati’s nation? Why are they the ones suffering and not the countries directly contributing to the problem? How can we achieve climate justice? Kiribati may be one of the first places on Earth whose existence is threatened by climate change, but it is surely not the last.
Haner, J. (n.d.). Residents of a village in South Tarawa waded through water during high tides that flooded the region, leaving homes isolated until the waters receded [picture]. The New York Times. Retrieved January 10, 2023 from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/03/world/asia/climate-change-kiribati.html
Iberdrola. (2022). Kiribati, the first country rising sea levels will swallow up as a result of climate change. Iberdrola. Retrieved January 10, 2023 from https://www.iberdrola.com/sustainability/kiribati-climate-change
Kiribati island: Sinking into the sea? (2013, November 25). BBC News. Retrieved January 10, 2023 from https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-25086963
Kiribati. (2022). Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Retrieved January 10, 2023 from https://www.internal-displacement.org/countries/kiribati
Maloff. (n.d.). Village on South Tarawa atoll, Kiribati, Gilbert islands, Micronesia, Oceania. Thatched roof houses. Rural life on a sandy beach of remote paradise atoll island under palms and with mangroves around [picture]. Shutterstock. Retrieved January 10, 2023 from https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/village-on-south-tarawa-atoll-kiribati-1250888257
Pala, C. (2021, February 23). Kiribati and China to develop former climate-refuge land in Fiji. The Guardian. Retrieved January 10, 2023 from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/24/kiribati-and-china-to-develop-former-climate-refuge-land-in-fiji
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