A Remote Pacific Nation, Kiribati, Threatened by Rising Seas

Mike Ives, A Remote Pacific Nation, Threatened by Rising Seas. The New York Times, 2 July 2016. Part 2 of an 8-part series on Carbon’s Casualties. “Articles in this series explore how climate change is displacing people around the world…. Climate change is threatening the livelihoods of the people of tiny Kiribati, and even the island nation’s existence. The government is making plans for the island’s demise.”

For years, scientists have been predicting that much of Kiribati may become uninhabitable within decades because of an onslaught of environmental problems linked to climate change. And for just as long, many here have paid little heed. But while scientists are reluctant to attribute any specific weather or tidal event to rising sea levels, the tidal surge last winter, known as a king tide, was a chilling wake-up call….

Pacific island nations are among the world’s most physically and economically vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events like floods, earthquakes and tropical cyclones, the World Bank said in a 2013 report. While world powers have summit meetings to negotiate treaties on how to reduce and mitigate carbon emissions, residents of tiny Kiribati, a former British colony with 110,000 people, are debating how to respond before it is too late.

Much of Kiribati, a collection of 33 coral atolls and reef islands scattered across a swath of the Pacific Ocean about twice the size of Alaska, lies no higher than six feet above sea level. The latest climate models predict that the world’s oceans could rise five to six feet by 2100. The prospects of rising seas and intensifying storms “threaten the very existence and livelihoods of large segments of the population,” the government told the United Nations in a report last year. Half of the 6,500-person village of Bikenibeu, for instance, could be inundated by 2050 by sea-level rises and storm surges, according to a World Bank study….

The study lays out Kiribati’s future in apocalyptic detail. Causeways would be washed away, crippling the economy; degraded coral reefs, damaged by warming water, would allow stronger waves to slam the coast, increasing erosion, and would disrupt the food supply, which depends heavily on fish supported by the reefs. Higher temperatures and rainfall changes would increase the prevalence of diseases like dengue fever and ciguatera poisoning.

Even before that, scientists and development experts say, rising sea levels are likely to worsen erosion, create groundwater shortages and increase the intrusion of salt water into freshwater supplies.

In response, Kiribati (pronounced KEE-ree-bas in the local language) has essentially been drawing up plans for its demise. The government has promoted “migration with dignity,” urging residents to consider moving abroad with employable skills. It bought nearly 6,000 acres in Fiji, an island nation more than 1,000 miles away, as a potential refuge. Fiji’s higher elevation and more stable shoreline make it less vulnerable….

…[P]acking up an entire country is not easy, and may not be possible. And many Kiribati residents remain skeptical of the need to prepare for an eventuality that may be decades away.

The skeptics include the rural and less educated residents of the outer islands who doubt they could obtain the skills needed to survive overseas, and Christians who put more faith in God’s protection than in climate models….

The Fiji purchase was not the first effort to address Kiribati’s perilous future. The World Bank-led Kiribati Adaptation Program, begun in 2003, developed water-management plans, built coastal sea walls, planted mangroves and installed rainwater-harvesting systems. The bank says the project, which cost $17.7 million, has conserved fresh water in Tarawa and protected about one mile of Kiribati’s 710 miles of coastline.

But a 2011 government-commissioned report cast doubt on whether the World Bank project helped Kiribati prepare for climate change. And while the mangroves and water management plans have helped, a 2014 study said the first round of sea walls, made of sandbags, had proved counterproductive and caused more erosion….

There is no shortage of ideas to avert Kiribati’s environmental fate. China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea shows the promise of sophisticated island-engineering technology, experts say…. But such measures are financially unrealistic for a resource-poor, aid-dependent country like Kiribati….

Another novel response gaining attention lately is the idea of applying international refugee law — largely drafted after World War II to protect people fleeing political, religious or racial persecution — to those forced from their homes because of climate change.

In 2012, a migrant worker from Kiribati, Ioane Teitiota, applied for asylum in New Zealand, arguing that he was unable to grow food or find potable water in Kiribati because of saltwater intrusion. His lawyer, Michael Kidd, said the distinction between environmental and political refugees was arbitrary. “You’re either a refugee or you’re not,” he said in an interview.

The courts rejected the argument, and Mr. Teitiota was deported from New Zealand last year. Mr. Kidd said he had appealed to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.