SOUTH TARAWA, Kiribati — Islands in the Pacific evoke images of serene beaches with white sand and shimmering swells, a place devoid of worries. However, for many islands, the worries are beginning to develop from the impacts of climate change. The waves of the Pacific are reaching further and further onto land, threatening to swallow them whole.
This is especially true for the nation of Kiribati.
Composed of 33 low-lying islands called atolls in the Pacific, the country of Kiribati is feeling the effects of climate change especially hard. Water levels around Kiribati are rising at rates of 1.2 centimeters (0.5 inches) a year, approximately four times the global average.
Some experts believe that the nation will disappear into the sea at the close of the century. Many residents on the other hand expect their homes to be submerged within 20 or 30 years.
With flooding occurring on the outer atolls already, many people have fled to the main island of Tarawa. Others have attempted to gain entrance to New Zealand citing refugee status as a result of climate change, but have found no success so far.
Beyond the effects of flooding, the country has been facing cycles of food shortages. The rising sea levels have increased the salt levels of the soil harming crops and ruining fresh water sources. In addition, the rising temperatures of oceans have bleached coral reefs driving away fish.
Social problems such as unemployment and domestic violence have also begun to manifest themselves as people begin to crowd toward the main island and food competition increases.
Furthermore, the flooding comes with a monetary cost. In a report released by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), coastal damages will cost several percentage points of Kiribati’s GDP to damage repair and protection costs.
With no real or immediate solutions coming from the international community, the government of Kiribati has taken the matter into their own hands. In late May, the government purchased a heavily forested 20 sq km piece of a Fiji island, Vanua Levu, from the Church of England for $8.77 million.
The land has been purchased in consideration of the possible migration of Kiribati’s population, roughly 100,000 inhabitants. For now, the forested land will be used for agricultural and fish farming purposes to ensure the food security of the country.
Despite the purchase of the land, the government hopes it will not need to use it for a mass exodus. It has implemented a ‘migration with dignity’ policy to find occupations and residency in neighboring countries such as New Zealand.
One possible source of good news is the growth of reef structures. Paul Kench, an atoll geo-morphologist at the University of Auchland, has established that the reef structures of Kiribati can grow 10 to 15 millimeters a year, faster than the expected annual sea level rise and will provide extra sand under the water. However, the question remains whether the growth will result in habitable land for residents.
Many other island nations such as Tuvalu and Maldives are also facing similar problems. The Maldives was the first country to look into purchasing land in anticipation of possible submersion, looking at land in India and Sri Lanka in 2009. The Marshall Islands, a nation that experienced forceful displacement from the U.S. as a result of nuclear testing, intends to follow the same path as Kiribati. Tuvalu, however, does not intend to abandon its land and is looking for other solutions.
The events in the Pacific are all symptoms of the global effects of climate change and displacement. Norman Myers, a British scientist concluded in 2002 that global warming would displace 200 million people by 2050. More recent estimates from others have raised that number to 700 million. Whether the world can handle such a large global displacement is unlikely. A dramatic change in policy and action will be needed to prevent a mass migration.
– William Ying