by Jessica Shor:

Ten years ago, twenty coconut trees flourished in the front yard of Pelenise Alofa Pilitati’s home on Tarawa, the capital island of Kiribati. Today, only two remain. Each high tide floods her yard with salt water, killing the vegetables and coconut trees she cultivates for food. Pilitati’s problem is not unique in the Republic of Kiribati, nor is it likely to go away. Climate change, the culprit behind the country’s droughts and rising sea levels, is slowly and persistently threatening to destroy the islands and render the I-Kiribati, the citizens of this island nation, into the world’s first “climate change refugees.”

Thousands of years of coral accumulation have created Kiribati's 33 narrow atolls, most of which lie less than two meters above sea level. (Flickr Creative Commons)

Water, Water, Everywhere

The total area of Kiribati’s 33 coral atolls is comparable to that of New York City, though they are scattered over an area the size of the Continental United States. It is on these strips of land – most of which are no wider than a city block and rise no higher than two meters above sea level – that Kiribati’s 100,000 residents live much as they have for hundreds of years. Telephones, computers, cars, and other signs of modernity that have gradually appeared on Tarawa are slow to reach Kiribati’s outlying villages. Most islanders live a subsistence lifestyle, and over 90 percent of I-Kiribati participate in the country’s traditional cashless economy, trading coconuts, tarot, tuna, and handicrafts. Their lifestyle is inherently tied to the land and sea, both of which now appear to be in revolt.

Since they first populated the islands 4000 years ago, I-Kiribati have relied on atolls for drinking water and irrigation. In these coral aquifers, water from rainfall and underground sources replenishes freshwater stocks, forming a freshwater lens that floats atop saltwater. Yet in recent years, because of rising sea levels and increasingly prolonged droughts, these lenses have thinned and been replaced with seawater.

According to Sheila Walsh, a researcher at Brown University’s Environmental Change Initiative, some residents and officials have proposed relocating entire villages to gain access to more freshwater.

But on islands so flat and narrow they seem to disappear into the horizon, where can villagers go? Recalling the landscape he has seen over 10 years of research in Kiribati, University of Canterbury professor Keith Dixon explained, “You’re basically living on a beach. Wherever you stand, if you look to your left or right you can always see the ocean.”

And the sea itself poses another threat to the I-Kiribati. According to research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, sea levels in the South Pacific are rising at a rate of nine to 12 millimeters per year, among the fastest in the world. That same research predicted that oceans could rise by up to one meter by 2100, condemning the islands of Kiribati to a watery fate.

Austin Blair, who received a 100 Projects for Peace grant to research climate change in Kiribati, observed the effects of sea level rise on the island of Maniana: “The south of the island used to be home to a coconut plantation, which the villagers protected with handmade rock seawalls. But severe high tides broached the walls, flooding the land and making it too salty to grow coconuts. Now it’s just a dead expanse, filled with brackish water.”

A Radical Solution

Recognizing that his country may soon be uninhabitable, Kiribati President Anote Tong has made an ambitious proposal: educate the entire population of Kiribati, then relocate them to Australia and New Zealand as skilled workers.

In a speech before the United Nations on September 25, 2008, Tong summarized his hopes for the relocation plan: “We shall be able to provide countries with labor and those countries shall be able to provide potential new homes for our people. This strategy provides our people with an option so that when they choose to migrate, they will migrate on merit and with dignity. They will be received by their adopted countries not as burdens but as worthwhile members of the community.”

Though full-scale implementation has not yet begun, the Kiribati government has already executed preliminary parts of this plan with significant Australian cooperation.

Under the Australian Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme, I-Kiribati can work in Australia’s horticultural sector for up to seven months, gaining work experience and saving money to send home. In addition, the Australia-Pacific Technical College (APTC) awards internationally recognized degrees in such marketable fields as carpentry, automotive mechanical technology, and hospitality operations. Another joint program, the Kiribati-Australia Nursing Initiative (KANI) annually accepts 30 I-Kiribati youth to attend nursing school in Australia on full five-year scholarships.

Melissa Carey, a Student Contact Officer at KANI, explained the origins of the Kiribati-Australia partnership: “President Tong couldn’t start this program without funding and support, and Australia had the resources to fulfill that need…There’s been a big push in the last few years from the Australian government to help our Pacific Island neighbors.”

These programs still have a long way to go, though. Just 19 percent of I-Kiribati have received any secondary or tertiary education, and only 7,800 I-Kiribati are active in the country’s cash economy. Simon Donner, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies Kiribati, admitted, “There hasn’t been wild success with job training. There’s a lot of unemployment. It’s hard when most people live at subsistence levels.” Walsh summarized this point, noting, “Kiribati people have plenty of skills, but few that can be used in a cash economy.”

Adapting to Change

Aside from job training, there is another challenge inherent in forced relocation. How will the I-Kiribati, most of whom have never driven a car, never shopped at a supermarket, and never met a Westerner, adapt to life in an industrialized country?

Unfortunately, Tong’s relocation plan lacks provisions for cultural adaptation. According to Donner, however, such assistance is essential: “When people from Kiribati migrate to Australia because of climate change, we can’t just think about them having homes and jobs. We need whole cultural education, because life won’t be the same as it was in Kiribati. People underestimate how big that is, how high the cost of that will be. It will be hard.”

Dixon has already witnessed I-Kiribati struggle as they adapt unassisted to life in his country: “If you’ve been used to living off of coconut and fish, to go somewhere else and not be able to get that is hard. Tuna in Kiribati is $2 per kilo, but in New Zealand it’s $30. So you have to change your eating habits. If you’re living on an atoll, There’s only one road. You get on the bus and go one way or the other. You don’t need a map to know where to go. But when you come to New Zealand and have intersections, it’s hard. It’s a very different place.”

Still, the I-Kiribati who already live abroad have done well in preserving their culture. While I-Kiribati in larger cities have begun to assimilate to their adopted country, Dixon noted that smaller communities have held tightly to such traditions as dancing and family gatherings.

A Homeland Lost

There is one major difference, though, between the I-Kiribati already living abroad and those who will migrate under Tong’s plan. Most I-Kiribati who now emigrate for work do so temporarily, sending remittances home and moving back to the islands after several years. In that way, they remain closely tied to their homeland. Yet under Tong’s relocation plan, the I-Kiribati will abandon their homes forever.

If the people of Kiribati must move abroad permanently, how long can they retain their cultural ties? And if the islands are submerged, to what homeland can I-Kiribati remain loyal?

No precedent exists to answer those questions. The I-Kiribati will likely be the first population to lose its home to climate change, and the ultimate success or failure of their migration will serve as a guide
for other low-lying states considering relocation plans, such as the Maldives and Bangladesh.

In the meantime, daily life on Kiribati proceeds as it always has. With international aid from the World Bank, I-Kiribati continue to rebuild their seawalls, fortify their homes, and nurture their crops. Each high tide, though, brings a reminder that the day will soon come, possibly as soon as 2050, when the I-Kiribati must pack their bags and leave their islands for good.

Jessica Shor’13 is in Ezra Stiles College.