Kiribati – Slowly drowning while the world is watching silently

The evidence of the climate crisis is now undeniable. But state responses to climate change often have social and political motivations, rather than addressing the realities of this threat. Kiribati, an island republic in the South Pacific, is sinking under the sea. The indigenous inhabitants can do nothing to stop it. They feel the world has forgotten about them or simply does not seem to care about their lives.

The rising level of the Pacific Ocean threatens to swallow the island republic of Kiribati, CNBC reports.

“Our islands could become uninhabitable in the coming decades,” former Kiribati President Anote Tong told CNBC, warning that a possible future resettlement of the population must be considered.

The Republic of Kiribati is the largest state in Oceania in terms of size. It covers an area of ​​5 million square kilometers surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. But the land area is only a small fragment, consisting of a chain of 33 coral atolls. About 100,000 people live on these fragments of the island.

“In order to continue living on these islands, we will have to raise the level of land,” the former head of state stressed.

Anote Tong, nominated in 2015 for the Nobel Peace Prize, was President of the Republic of Kiribati from 2003 to 2016. During his tenure, Tong persuaded the rulers to buy several thousand hectares in the Republic of Fiji, in case they will have to face population relocation.

In Kiribati, the gross domestic product is below 700 dollars per inhabitant per year. It’s a poor country, and because even its highest parts are a mere two metres above sea level Kiribati will be one of the first places to be engulfed by the sea as the greenhouse effect causes the oceans to rise. The sea level is rising steadily, a few millimetres every year, so gradually that even the local people hardly notice. Only those who live close to the shore wonder why their drinking water has suddenly gone brackish, or why the waves are eating away more and more of their property.

It’s the same thing in Tuvalu, Fiji, Samoa and the Maldives. All these countries are gradually disappearing under the sea. Their inhabitants are helpless. None of them knows how to defend themselves from rising sea levels, and meanwhile, the rest of the world is simply sitting back and watching.

This is the story of Kiritimati in the mid-Pacific – the largest coral atoll in the world, which is also part of the country of Kiribati. If we pay attention to the history and current situation of this atoll we can forecast what the future looks like for those living in similar locations all around the world, and we can also understand the issues of current international policies.

Raised no more than two metres above sea level at its highest point, Kiritimati is one of the most climate vulnerable inhabited islands on the planet. It is at the centre of the world, yet most people could not pinpoint it on a map, and know little about the rich culture and traditions of its people.

This culture may be set to disappear. One in seven of all relocations in Kiribati – whether between islands or internationally – are attributed to environmental change. And a 2016 UN report has shown that half of households have already been affected by sea level rise on Kiritimati. Rising sea levels also pose challenges to the storage of nuclear waste on small island states – a hangover from their colonial past.

New Zealand has also created an annual opportunity lottery called the Pacific Access Ballot. This lottery is presented as a way for 75 Kiribati citizens per year to resettle in New Zealand. But quotas are reportedly not being filled. Understandably, people do not want to leave their homes, families and lives. The World Bank and the UN, meanwhile, have argued that Australia and New Zealand should improve mobility for seasonal workers and allow open migration for citizens of Kiritimati, in light of climate change affects. But seasonal work is often menial and offers few prospects for a better life.

But are Australia and New Zealand really trying to help nations at risk in the Pacific islands? In 2019, Australia, New Zealand and 16 Pacific Island members held talks at the Pacific Island Forum in the tiny island nation of Tuvalu, eventually reaching an agreement after a 12-hour meeting. But the final declaration was weaker than an earlier agreement by smaller Pacific countries, which called for a rapid phasing out of coal and higher emission reduction targets, Australian national broadcaster ABC reported.

Australia is also being affected, with global warming killing coral on the Great Barrier Reef and contributing to fires, floods and droughts.
Yet, while a survey revealed that 64% of the Australian population believes climate change should be a top priority, the government has been slow to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. Coal is Australia’s second-largest export, according to Minerals Council of Australia, which represents the country’s exploration, mining and minerals processing industry. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has long supported the coal industry. He famously brought a chunk of coal into Parliament in 2017, taunting the opposition party about its push for more renewable energy by saying: “This is coal, don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you.”

Pacific Island countries, home to fewer than 10 million people, had hoped that Australia and New Zealand — the richest and biggest emissions contributors of the 18 Pacific Island Forum members — would step up their efforts to address the climate crisis by endorsing the so-called Tuvalu Declaration at the forum.
However, Australia had reservations about the sections on emissions reductions, coal use and funding for the UN’s Green Climate Fund, the ABC reported. New Zealand also expressed concern about the Green Climate Fund, it added.
As he left the meeting, Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga said: “We tried our best.” Later, he recounted an exchange with Morrison during the talks, in which he told the Australian leader: “You are concerned about saving your economies … I’m concerned about saving my people.” Sopoaga also described how, after a presentation earlier in the week, the Prime Minister of Tonga, Akilisi Pohiva, was brought to tears.

Encouraging the population to migrate is of course the option with the lowest costs. But we should not fall into the trap of thinking it is the only option. We don’t need to allow this island to drown.

This is not just a human issue – abandoning this island to the sea would also eventually condemn a bird species found nowhere else on Earth, the bokikokiko or Kiritimati reed warbler, to global extinction. Other small island states whose existence is threatened by rising sea levels are also home to species at risk of extinction. The Marshall Islands, for example, are home to the coconut crab, which can only be hunted and eaten by the local inhabitants.

But for the millions of people who live in places that are threatened by climate change, the question is about environmental and climate justice. This question should be not just about whether climate change hazards are being addressed – but why those who want to continue to live on small island states often do not have the resources or autonomy to address climate change and other global challenges themselves.

By: I. Constantin

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