Kiribati and the threat of sea level rise

 This article is part of the 4sea Project.

The archipelago of Kiribati, a veritable earthly paradise lost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is directly threatened by sea level rise and has thus become the symbol of climate change.

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Kiribati, officially the Republic of Kiribati, is an island nation consisting of 32 low-lying atolls and one raised coral island, of which only 20 are inhabited [1]. More than half of the population (100,000) currently live in the capital Tarawa. It is spread over an area of 3,5 million square kilometers of ocean, which represents approximately the total surface of India. [2] Considered as one of the least developed countries in the world, Kiribati is largely reliant on international aid and on fishing licenses accorded to foreign ships to enter in its vast maritime zone. It is also characterized by problems like high infant mortality rates, a shortage of university graduates and unemployment that tops 30 per cent. [3]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMuch of Kiribati atolls lie no higher than six feet [4] (approx. 1.83 m) above sea level, which makes them extremely vulnerable to sea level rise, a phenomenon induced by global warming and more precisely by the melting of continental glaciers and the thermal expansion of the ocean. Today, rising sea levels are no more considered as an ecological prediction. Indeed, its impacts have already been observed in some islands of the Pacific Ocean, and Kiribati is one of the most affected. It has already seen growing damages from storms and flooding and some of the nation’s uninhabited islets have even vanished beneath the Pacific.

kiribati-31016_1280Various important aspects have to be taken into consideration when talking about the impacts of sea level rise in Kiribati. One element to take into account is agriculture, which will be affected by saltwater intrusion as well as by the loss of coastal land due to inundation. Production of coconuts, breadfruit and pandanus is particularly sensitive to this last effect. Coastal erosion is another aspect to look at. Indeed, an increase in the number of storm surges has been noticed, high waves also break over coastal land and seawalls more frequently, resulting in flooding and destruction of settled areas. Furthermore, the economy of Kiribati could be really affected by sea level rise as it could inundate the causeways linking the islets of Tarawa, thus interrupting socio-economic links. Finally, as sea levels have risen, a lot of wells have been contaminated with salt water and have become unusable. [5]

Operation Kiribati Assist 2008 - Collection and IdentificationGiven all these elements, the Government of Kiribati must rapidly take action in order to attenuate its impacts. Considering this high vulnerability and the fact that the country has a very small use of fossil fuels, Kiribati is more focused on an adaptation than a mitigation strategy.  In that sense, the Kiribati Government is undertaking the Kiribati Adaptation Program (KAP). Supported by the World Bank, the Global Environmental Facility, AusAID and NZAID, the KAP is aiming at reducing Kiribati’s vulnerability to climate change, climate variability and sea level rise by raising awareness of climate change, assessing and protecting available water resources and managing inundation. Initiatives include improving water supply management; coastal management protection measures such as mangrove re-plantation and protection of public infrastructure; strengthening laws to reduce coastal erosion; and population settlement planning to reduce personal risks. [6]

Lastly, Kiribati Government has been already preparing its population for an eventual migration. Even if this must be seen as a last resort, the government feels that it is important to get people ready for the move so that they can do it in a way that preserves the dignity of the people being relocated. As a matter of fact, the government of Kiribati is negotiating with Fiji, New Zealand and Australia in order to find lands for its inhabitants who will probably see their island disappear one day.

About the author: Laura Klotz is freshly graduated with a Business Administration Master degree specialised in Corporate Social Responsibility and is involved with 4sea within CliMates.

This article has been written in the context of 4sea. 4sea, a project about the importance of the world oceans, addresses the interdependence between the oceans and climate change, entraining everyone to become ocean lovers – for now through articles and videos on this blog and in November on our own platform. 4sea is a joint project between the youth organisations CliMates, Youth for Ocean and Vitamin Sea. Love it? Stay tuned for our platform!

Reference
[1] S. Foster and B. K. Macdonald, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Kiribati, [website], 2017,  https://www.britannica.com/place/Kiribati#toc319111main, (accessed 3 July 2017).
[2] International Monetary Fund, A Big Question on Small States, [website], 2013, http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2013/09/Jahan.htm, (accessed 4 July 2017).
[3] T. McDonald,Kiribati’s climate change Catch-22, BBC News, 8 December  2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-35024046, (accessed 4 July 2017).
[4] M. Ives,A Remote Pacific Nation, Threatened by Rising Seas, The New York Times, 2 July 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/03/world/asia/climate-change-kiribati.html, (accessed 5 July 2017).
[5] Office of the President Republic of Kiribati, Kiribati Climate Change – Effects, [website], http://www.climate.gov.ki/category/effects/, (accessed 6 July 2017).
[6] Office of the President Republic of Kiribati, Kiribati Climate Change – Kiribati Adaptation Program, [website], http://www.climate.gov.ki/category/action/adaptation/kiribati-adaptation-program/, (accessed 6 July 2017).
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