Original article published in the German magazine, Welt-Sichten.
The Republic of Kiribati is no more than a few feet above sea level at its highest point – a concern for a country at the heart of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of kilometres away from any other major land mass and at risk of rising sea levels and other effects of climate change.
Kiribati, pronounced “Kir-ee-bahs,” is comprised of 32 atolls and one island scattered across millions of square kilometres of ocean equivalent in size to the continental United States. What’s happening in Kiribati has become a textbook example of the effects of climate change, with some scientists estimating that within a few decades nowhere in Kiribati will be habitable.
The Pacific at large, is facing this existential crisis. A report by the University of New South Wales’ Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law noted that climate change linked “disasters now displace many more people within their countries each year than conflict, and the Asia-Pacific region is the hardest hit.” Between 2008 and 2018, the Asia-Pacific alone saw more than 80 per cent of all new disaster displacement.
In 2015, in anticipation of what was to come, the then president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, unveiled a “migration with dignity” policy and bought 2,000 hectares of land in Fiji so Kiribati’s population of 115,000 could be relocated to higher ground.
“If this disastrous outcome comes to pass, my people will need a place of safety to move to,” said Tong. “Rather than be regarded as ‘climate refugees’ – a term that has no definition or status in the international legal system – I seek migration with dignity for my people.”
But as of today, few people have made the move, and Tong’s successor, Taneti Maamau, first elected in 2016 and re-elected in June this year, has stressed that leaving Kiribati is not an option and that his government’s intention was to “put aside the misleading and pessimistic scenario of a sinking, deserted nation.”
Instead, Maamau’s government is pursuing an ambitious plan to dredge surrounding materials from the ocean floor onto exposed island coasts to make the islands more durable against rising sea levels and to reclaim lost land for planting crops. The islands are mostly made up of sand and reef rock.
“Previously it has been assumed the islands, due to their low-lying nature, will simply drown as sea levels rise,” said Paul Kench, a Canadian coastal geomorphologist, who is working with Maamau’s government in its island raising efforts.
“Our work, over the last 20 years and across more than a thousand islands, has shown that they’re natural features that can adjust their size and shape on reef platforms as sea-level changes,” he said.
According to Kench, the majority of islands in the Kiribati archipelago have actually increased in size and started to increase in elevation, due to natural processes, such as waves bringing up sediment, mostly sand and fine reef rock, and depositing it on the shoreline, raising its height.
“These are largely the less densely populated islands on which natural processes still operate unaffected from anthropogenic modification,” he said, adding that the real problem rests on
the urban islands (usually 2-3 or less than 1% of islands) in
any archipelago, which are often overpopulated and have had
the shoreline modified and disconnected from the natural
processes by sea walls, historically built to protect properties from king tides.
“We are proposing these islands require some assistance through the addition of aggregate to raise land levels,” he said.
Patrick D. Nunn, a Professor of Geography and Oceanic Geoscience at the University of the Sunshine Coast isn’t so optimistic.
“I don’t think most atoll islands will remain habitable for more than 20 years,” he said. “I know they’re showing signs of apparent resilience, but I don’t think we’ve pinpointed the causes of that resilience sufficiently well to understand the processes that are
“What Paul is not looking at in his modelling is what's happening in the interior of those islands, whether it's staying at the same level or whether in fact, it's going down,” said Nunn.
“Patrick is right,” Kench said. “If they are wide islands, they’re
not going to receive that natural sediment as most of the
adjustment will be taking place within 100 metres of the coast,
hence why we need to dredge and nourish it, giving it a helping hand.”
Kench said there are two parts to this; the ability to build the ridge of the island higher and also having the natural processes of waves bringing up sediment.
“This is going to offset future flood risks, because essentially this response may allow the island margin to keep pace with sea level rise,” he said. “If those critical outer margins of the island can respond, we are building in an offset flood defence in a way.”
Kench and Nunn agree on the fact that Pacifika people of atoll nations are fed up with global narratives of their “negative futures,” stating that they’re in fact extremely resilient, having survived countless disasters, with Nunn drawing attention to the historic tale of the people of Pukapuka atoll in the Cook Islands.
“[They] speak of a night about 400 years ago as ‘te mate wolo’ (the great death). Then, a giant wave washed over the island destroying all the houses and food gardens and killing everyone save two women and 17 men who were left to rebuild Pukapukan society,” said Nunn. “There’s a huge amount of inbuilt resilience in Pacific Island societies.”
In addition to rising sea-levels, Kiribati has been hit more frequently by drought, intense storm activity and king tides, which are all commonly attributable effects of climate change. In 2016, the main hospital on South Tarawa, the most populous atoll in Kiribati, found itself at the mercy of these forces.
Carly Learson, who worked with the United Nations Population Fund in Kiribati earlier this year on a project preparing Kiribati for future disasters said the loss of homes due to sea-level rise has contributed to South Tarawa having one of the highest population densities in the world.
“People have maybe two- or three-square meters per family and the distance between houses is a matter of centimetres. In Kiribati, you get a real sense of what overcrowding does to people in terms of their mental and physical health,” said Learson. “Once there’s a flu or someone gets a cold, they’re living so close together that pretty much the whole neighbourhood gets it.”
With a population of just 120,000, Kiribati is one of the least populated countries in the world, yet South Tawara, where around 50 per cent of the population resides, has a population density larger than that of cities such as Tokyo, London, and Hong Kong. In South Tarawa, there are around 15,000 inhabitants per square kilometre.
Claire Anterea, an I-Kiribati woman and the co-founder of the Kiribati Climate Action Network said she became involved in responding to climate change after seeing the impact it was having on her friends and family.
“In Kiribati, we measure the rising sea-level by how many homes are destroyed,” she said. “Many in my family have ran away from their homes because they were destroyed by king tides or by storm winds or their sea walls kept falling down.”
Anterea noted that younger people are more likely to consider moving abroad but it’s the elderly that get upset and angry when the option of migration is proposed. “Family is key to everything. We are always together and share things together,” she said. “The land is also very precious – we buried our ancestors here. This is where we belong.”
Anterea added that the uncertainty is also a major concern for business owners and would be investors, which in turn effects the economy and the job market.
“People interested in starting a business will choose to put it elsewhere instead of taking the risk to build here, next to the sea,” she said. “They see the impacts of climate change and the risks that will have.”
In 2017, at the 23rd annual Conference of the Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Maamau unveiled to world leaders a pitch to wealthy investors
to “transform Kiribati into the Dubai or Singapore of the Pacific” by building 5-star eco-resorts that will enable tourists to access “world-class diving, fishing and surfing experiences.”
But before Kiribati could be transformed, Maamau admitted, the islands first needed to be raised to be made safe for investment. Maamau told the Guardian earlier this year that he will be seeking the help of China, despite protests from Washington and its allies over China’s growing influence in the region.
Some observers have even flagged the possibility of Maamau’s island raising ambitions as a key reason for Kiribati making the diplomatic switch from Taiwan to China last year, given China’s offer of cheap loans and experience in island building in the South China Sea.
“China is probably one of the most adept low-cost engineering nations in the world, so it’s not surprising Kiribati is seeking their support” said Professor Nunn. “But my sense is that they wouldn’t look too closely at the long-term sustainability issues. What they would look at would be the short-term advantage in terms of having Kiribati on their side.”
Ahead of Maamau’s re-election earlier this year, Kiribati received more than US$4.2 million from Beijing for “livelihood projects.” Just a few months later, Kiribati defended China’s internment of more than a million Uyghurs in Xinjiang in a statement to the United Nations.
Alexandre Dayant, a researcher at the Lowy Institute, who maps and analyses foreign aid in the Pacific region, said whether China’s development projects abroad meet standards is hard to verify.
“China’s aid program is so opaque it is very difficult to understand exactly what it is doing,” he said. “With respect to the quality and sustainability of the projects [in general] it’s really a mixed bag. Projects in Samoa have largely led to positive outcomes, while the experience in Tonga and Vanuatu has been less positive.”
He believes for Kiribati to realise its dreams of raising the islands, they’re going to need regional cooperation, not just China alone – especially given the kind of support Kiribati already receives from more traditional donors.
From 2010 – 2018, the main donors to Kiribati were Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan and the World Bank.
“Raising the level of the atolls will cost a lot and I don’t think China can completely cover that cost. Other donors will have to play a role, but at the moment, this seems unlikely,” said Dayant, due to increasing tensions between China and other major countries involved in the Pacific.
Kiribati has not provided details on how it plans to pay for the island raising project. Kench estimates it could cost as much as half a billion dollars, more than double Kiribati’s GDP. But he noted we’re talking about saving a culture. “Why should that have an upper cap on cost?” he asked.
From 2010 – 2018, the main donors to Kiribati were Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan and the World Bank.
“The amount of money that gets sunk in large holes around the world and on all sorts of projects, what we’re proposing in South Tarawa, in the grand scheme of things, is largely trivial. What’s being proposed here is absolutely doable with the technology at our disposal. This is achievable,” he said.
A major complicator for Pacific Island nations today is the
on-going battle for influence over the region being waged by
China and the US. The Lowy Institute’s newly published 2020
Asia Power Index found that the “US is still the most powerful country in Asia, [but] China is not far behind and momentum is
on China’s side.
The US still outranks China militarily, but China is better equipped for the future, with a booming population and vast resources, and with greater economic capability and diplomatic and economic relationships, according to the index.
Anna Powles, a senior lecturer at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies and the co-founder of the Security Politics Development Network said the Pacific has long been a site of geostrategic competition.
“The Pacific Ocean lies across critical sea and air lines of communication. For external actors, it is a region of votes, resources, and strategic real estate – both maritime and land-based.”
Its location is also paramount. Kiribati serves as a halfway point between the West Coast of the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific, including Australia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the French overseas territories and its adversaries, namely China and North Korea.
In response to the strengthening of relations between Kiribati and China, the US Military raised concerns about the possibility of Kiribati allowing China to build a military base on Kiribati’s Kiritimati Island, 1,300 miles south of Hawaii, home to the US Pacific fleet. Kiribati has strongly denied any militarisation by China.
The concern with Kiribati seeking support from China on this project specifically, said Powles, is that “it speaks to the broader concern that China is seeking to reshape the regional order to its advantage and that “island building” will lead to Beijing further deepening its influence in key parts of the Pacific.”
With or without Chinese aid, purely from a scientific point of view, Professor Nunn believes that “planning for resettlement from Kiribati is a conversation that should continue, rather than privileging the talk of adaptation,” given the great expense.
“There is widespread recognition that planning for mobility is necessary so that people can move before disaster strikes. Smart migration policies can provide people with choices to take control of their own lives, rather than being displaced when disasters occur,” wrote the authors of the recent paper published by the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law.
Dr Kench said ideally there would be a healthy middle ground, in which donor countries support projects such as dredging on South Tarawa, infrastructure projects on the outer islands so people can migrate away from South Tarawa and offer options of migration to third party countries - but he doesn’t hold hope on this outcome.
“It’s far too sensible,” said Kench, in a nod to politics getting in the way of good policy. “You get a lot of sensible people around a table and it makes a lot of sense but putting that into action through political channels seems to become incredibly difficult.”
Claire Anterea from the Kiribati Climate Action Network, said she hopes that Kiribati’s allies, despite their differences, would work together to support Kiribati.
“They need to work together, they need to listen to us, and stop competing,” she said. “If they can work together and they think
they can help our people, then that’s great but if their intention is different, then that’s a problem.”
She added that overall, most people in Kiribati support the government’s plan to stay and fight by raising the islands.
“The government wants to fight, they want to adapt to these changes, and in a way, that’s what everybody wants,” she said. “I know it will cost a lot of money and I know my government cannot afford it, but we have to adapt. We have to find ways to face the changes of our islands. That’s our fight.”
By Joshua Mcdonald with photographs by Carly Learson.