Thu, Jul 07, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Despite rising seas, Kiribatians divided on their nation’s future

A former president has long warned the island nation faces devastation from climate change, but many of his compatriots feel there are more pressing problems that need attention, or place their faith in God

By Mike Ives  /  NY Times News Service, TARAWA, Kiribati

Illustration: Mountain People

One clear bright day in winter last year, a tidal surge swept over an ocean embankment in the remote, low-lying island nation of Kiribati, smashing through the doors and windows of Betio Hospital and spewing sand and debris across its maternity ward.

Beero Hosea, 37, a handyman, cut the power and helped carry frightened mothers through the rubble and water to a nearby school.

“If the next one is combined with a storm and stronger winds, that’s the end of us,” he said. “It’s going to cover this whole island.”

For years, scientists have been predicting that within decades much of Kiribati might become uninhabitable because of an onslaught of environmental problems linked to climate change. And for just as long, many Kiribatians have paid little heed. However, 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.

“It shocked us,” said Tean Rube, a pastor with the Kiribati Uniting Church. “We realized, OK, maybe climate change is real.”

Pacific island nations are among the world’s most physically and economically vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events such as 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 of 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 about 1.8m above sea level. The latest climate models predict that the world’s oceans could rise 1.5m to 1.8m by 2100.

The prospects of rising seas and intensifying storms “threaten the very existence and livelihoods of large segments of the population,” the Kiribatian government told the UN in a report last year.

For example, half of the 6,500 inhabitants of the village of Bikenibeu 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 such as 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 has essentially been drawing up plans for its demise. The government has promoted “migration with dignity,” urging residents with employable skills to consider moving abroad. It bought nearly 2,430 hectares in Fiji, an island nation more than 1,600km away, as a potential refuge. Fiji’s higher elevation and more stable shoreline make it less vulnerable.

Former Kiribatian president Anote Tong, who pushed through the Fiji purchase, said it was also intended as a cry for attention from the world.

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