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

“The issue of climate change is real, serious, and we’d like to do something about it if they’re going to take their time about it,” he said in a recent interview.

However, packing up an entire country is not easy, and might not be possible. In addition, many Kiribati residents remain skeptical of the need to prepare for an eventuality that might 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.

“According to their biblical belief, we’re not going to sink because God is the only person who decides the fate of any country,” said Rikamati Naare, news editor at Radio Kiribati, the state-run broadcaster.

As Tong became a climate-change celebrity, invited to speak at conferences around the world, opponents accused him of ignoring problems at home, such as high unemployment and infant mortality.

They derided the Fiji purchase — which cost nearly US$7 million — as a boondoggle; dismissed his “migration with dignity” as a contradiction in terms; and called his talk of rising sea levels alarmist and an affront to divine will.

Tong, having served three terms, was not allowed to run for re-election this year, but in March elections the opposition defeated his party.

Kiribatian President Taneti Maamau said he planned to shift priorities.

“Most of our resources are now diverted to climate-change-related development, but in fact there are also bigger issues, like population, the health of the people, the education of the people,” he said during an interview at parliament, which sits on reclaimed land at the edge of a turquoise lagoon.

“Climate change is a serious issue, but you can’t do very much about it, especially if a big hurricane comes,” Maamau added with a hearty laugh.

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 said the US$17.7 million project has conserved fresh water in Tarawa and protected about 1.6km of Kiribati’s 1143km of coastline.

However, a 2011 government-commissioned report cast doubt on whether the World Bank project helped Kiribati prepare for climate change. 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.

“Adaptation is just this long, ugly, hard slog,” said the study’s lead author, Simon Donner, a professor of geography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “The idea that an outside organization can just come in with money, expertise and ideas and implement something easily is naive. What you need is consistent, long-term funding — the type of stuff that’s hard to pull off with development aid.”

Denis Jean-Jacques Jordy, a senior environmental specialist at the World Bank, acknowledged that “we had some issues” with the first sea walls, but said subsequent ones made of rock were better designed.

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 said.

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