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

Tong commissioned a study on raising Kiribati’s coastline.

However, such measures are financially unrealistic for a resource-poor, aid-dependent country such as Kiribati.

“It’s not about the place going underwater,” Donner said, noting that some of Kiribati’s islands had actually grown in recent years because of land reclamation or natural coastal dynamics. “It’s about it becoming prohibitively expensive to live in. That’s the real challenge for Kiribati.”

The parallel freshwater crisis is also fixable, at a cost. Clean drinking water is scarce on several islands and saltwater from high ocean tides has infiltrated some wells. Many residents of South Tarawa, home to half the country’s people, now get their drinking water exclusively from rainwater tanks.

Experts said that as sea levels rise, Kiribati’s fragile groundwater supply might face even greater risks, while the next drought could quickly exhaust the municipal supply and household rainwater tanks.

Kiribati could invest in desalinization equipment or ship in drinking water, but this is a country with only one paved road.

“It’s all doable,” said Doug Ramsay, the Pacific Rim manager at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand. “It’s just going to be a very expensive exercise.”

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 Teitiota was deported from New Zealand last year.

Kidd said he had appealed to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Still, migration might become increasingly important.

Tong said that he hoped to prepare his people to move with job-training programs that would meet standards recognized in Australia and New Zealand.

“The science of climate change is not 100 percent precise,” he said in the interview. “But we know without any argument that, in time, our people will have to relocate unless there are very, very significant resources committed to maintain the integrity of the land.”

Coastal threats are increasingly clear to residents of Buariki, an oceanside village of thatched-roof huts and towering coconut palms on the island of North Tarawa. Erosion along the beach has toppled dozens of coconut trees. The World Bank estimates that 18 to 80 percent of the village, which sits on a peninsula not more than 90m wide, might be underwater by 2050.

Some villagers said they were resigned to leaving.

“Our government already has land in Fiji for the Kiribati people, so if there are more high tides here, they’ll bring people to live there,” said Kourabi Ngauea, 29. “But it depends on the government, and if they can support us.”

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