Kiribati: A Nation Going Under

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.