Tarawa - climate refugees, sinking islands and no need for pants

December 22, 2017

I arrived in Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, at about 3.30pm. Tarawa is a skinny boomerang-shaped atoll in the central Pacific Ocean. It contains one long main road that spans the entire stretch of the island, with a lagoon on one side and open ocean on the other. When I was travelling down the main* drag to get to my accommodation, we came to a small hump in the road. I was told that this was the highest point on the island, sitting at just 3m above sea level. “When there is a Tsunami we all have to come here” a local woman said to me, laughing. Unsure if this was a joke or not, but wanting to act cool, I laughed along with her. *only

 Kiribati was something of a poisoned paradise. I saw some of the most beautiful beaches and outlooks that I have ever seen in my life; fish and lobster appeared plentiful; and numerous crops and coconut trees were dotted between the arbitrarily positioned huts. However, you cannot swim in the inviting seas (due to years of open defecation); fish caught in the Kiribati lagoon are often not safe to eat; and rising sea levels have resulted in saline water intruding into crops, trees and local wells, killing plants and rendering fresh water undrinkable.  Describing the situation on a nearby island, one man told me of how children now have to cross lagoons to get to school, as due to sea level rise, the island no longer drains after heavy rains. This was not the situation 15 years ago. “Unless you are here getting your feet wet, you don’t really notice the effects” the man said. Another local resident told media about how he attended a funeral, and when they went to put the coffin in the ground, it just sat there, floating in water that was flooding the hole that had been dug for it.


Rising sea levels aren’t just impacting on the i-Kiribati way of life, but they threaten Kiribati’s very existence.  Certain islands in the Pacific have disappeared entirely due to rising sea levels, and scientists predict that Kiribati (and other similar Pacific nations) could disappear in mere decades.  For many Kiribati inhabitants, emigrating is the only option. One i-Kiribati local summed it up in a media article like this: “I have no choice.  No other choice. If a tsunami coming or high tides been affecting our water, how can we survive for the future?” The magnitude of the threat is reflected in the actions of the Kiribati government, who has already purchased 20 sq km of land on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu in case Kiribati becomes uninhabitable. Vanua Levu was the island that I talked about in my last blog, where many villages are already needing to be relocated due to rising sea levels. Although the vicious packs of wild dogs would seemingly fit in well, relocating an entire nation will raise a number of previously unexplored questions, such as:


  • Will the entire country migrate to the same place, or will it be split as to avoid overloading of the host country’s infrastructure?

  • Will the i-Kiribati retain their Kiribati citizenship, or will they accept the citizenship of the host country?

  • If Kiribati citizenship is retained, will future Kiribati be a sovereign state within another sovereign state? If so, what does this mean in terms of governance? 

As well as the Kiribati government concluding that the situation is serious enough to warrant major action, a small number of forward-thinking Kiribati locals, including Ioane Teitiota, have already sought asylum in New Zealand on the grounds of climate change. However, the 1951 Refugee Convention was not drafted to accommodate environmental refugees – it is focused on the claimant being persecuted on grounds such as race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Until the legal framework catches up with the rising tide, claimants citing climate change as a basis for their claim are unlikely to be successful. Notwithstanding this, claimants such as Tetiota and his family may find some comfort in the New Zealand government’s promise to explore the idea of an experimental humanitarian visa category which could be implemented for people from the Pacific who are displaced by rising sea levels resulting from climate change.


The irony of this is that the i-Kiribati are suffering due to the moral irresponsibility of the rest of the world.  The average Kiribati resident emits less than 1 ton of carbon dioxide each year, or 7% of the global average. The sad reality is that climate change does not respect sovereignty and emissions know no borders. If we don’t start acting to cut carbon emissions soon, it may be too late for countries such as Kiribati. Like previous president Anote Tong said in a recent TIME interview “We have constantly been calling the international community to do something about reducing emissions, but the reality for us is that it really does not matter.” 


Due to a wild pack of dogs that wanted me dead,* I didn’t end up running in Kiribati. I wanted to express my annoyance about not being able to freely run 21km to my i-Kiribati friend, the one who had earlier pointed out the highest part of the island to me. However, with trying to devise a plan to ensure that her and her people are able to migrate from their sinking island with dignity, I thought that she probably had enough on her plate. 


*dead may be an exaggeration, but they were definitely up for a moderate to severe maul.



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