INTERVIEW: Time running out for Kiribati: president

CRITICAL MASS::Data show that the waters around the island nation are rising faster than expected, putting it at serious risk of disappearing unless drastic action is taken

AFP, WELLINGTON

Sun, Dec 02, 2012 - Page 4

The low-lying Pacific nation of Kiribati is running out of time on climate change as seas rise and is drafting plans for its survival while the world procrastinates on the issue, the country’s leader says.

Kiribati President Anote Tong said areas of the country — consisting of more than 30 coral atolls, most of which are only a few meters above sea level — had already been swamped by the rising ocean.

“We’ve had communities that have had to relocate because their previous village is submerged, it’s no longer there,” he told reporters by telephone from the capital, Tarawa.

Kiribati is among a number of island states, including Tuvalu, Tokelau and the Maldives, that the UN Human Rights Commission is concerned could become “stateless” due to climate change.

Tong was pessimistic that UN climate talks under way in Doha would offer a solution.

“That’s not relevant to us,” he said. “The reality is that we’re already facing problems.”

“Are the negotiations addressing this? I don’t believe so. They’re regarded as a game by many of the negotiators, they’re not focusing on what’s already happening in the most vulnerable countries,” the Kiribati president said.

Rather than wait for global action, Tong said Kiribati was examining survival options, including relocating its 103,000-strong population.

The best scenario involves building sea walls and planting mangroves to repel rising seas, allowing life in Kirbati to continue.

Tong said that was unlikely, with data released last week finding seas rising quicker than previous estimates, pointing to a 1m rise by the end of the century.

Other options involve moving all or part of Kiribati’s population.

“We have to accept the possibility, the reality, that some of our people will have to be relocated,” Tong said.

He said the government was set to purchase 2,000 hectares of land in Fiji to provide food for Kiribati and possibly act as a new island home. He added that East Timor had also offered land if needed.

Tong said man-made islands were an expensive option, but remained a possibility if the global community helped foot the bill to stop Kiribati becoming “collateral damage” to climate change.

Tong expects an options paper to be completed early next year, with costings and engineering reports that could be presented to donors.

He said there was no “D-day” for relocation, residents are to have a choice about whether to stay or go.

“To wait for the time when we have no other option but to jump [in the sea] and swim or go somewhere is unrealistic,” he said.

After arguing for urgent action on climate change at numerous international forums since winning power in 2003, Tong said he would not attend the Doha talks.

“The question is: What to say next to galvanize the international community into action?” he said.

However, he remained optimistic that the world would help countries like Kiribati, which did not cause climate change, but bear the brunt of its effects.

“I think the citizens of countries have a conscience, but they’re not really the ones who make these decisions ... It’s the governments,” Tong said.