In this guest post by Geoff Henderson takes us to the heart of how climate change poses a real and present danger to some of our Pacific neighbours.
Kiribati – pron. Keer-i-bas – is perhaps the world’s most immediate victim of climate change. One hundred and ten thousand Kiribatians will likely be the first climate change refugees. It is happening right now, and they will be the first of millions over the next decades. This is a two-part post. Part one explains the people and livelihood of Kiribatians and explains their plight.
Part two examines the many real and surprising difficulties posed by moving a very old culture to another country. The story told is very much a proxy for many other countries threatened by sea level rise – Maldives, Seychelles, Torres Strait Islands, Solomon Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Tuvalu and Bangladesh to name a few.
Climate change (CC) is real. Some debate continues about the cause, but the climate is changing. Most people are familiar with the notions that CO2 levels are rising, as are global temperatures. The oceans are becoming more acidic, ice caps are melting, the oceans are getting warmer and many other “symptoms” are emerging.
It is easy to perceive that climate is changing so slowly relative to our lifetime that we need not be alarmed. Many do not seem to see an immediate risk, only a distant threat. That view is not challenged by all governments in Australia.
However, CC is profoundly affecting the citizens of the Republic of Kiribati in the Central Pacific. The group of 33 atolls, has an average height above sea level of less than 2.5 metres. Much of the land is only a few hundred metres across. Half the population live on Tarawa Island, the highest point being just three metres above sea level.
The people, known as I-Kiribati, are mostly Micronesian in origin, and have been present on Kiribati for approximately three thousand years. It is truly their place and there are immense bonds to their land that are central to their very livelihood and wellbeing.
Kiribati is not facing some distant threat, it is the subject of a clear and present danger right now, to borrow a Tom Clancy title.
Two main processes are contributing to sea level rise and associated stresses. One is the melting of land-based ice. The other is the thermal expansion of the sea as it warms. Sea level increase and its effects on Kiribati is exacerbated by increased tides, storm surge, inconsistency of rainfall and acidification of the sea. NOAA records show that actual overall (global) sea level rise between 1993 and 2014 was 2.6 inches or 6.6 mm per year.
The I-Kiribati, are routinely swamped during king tide and storm surge events. Sea level rise was estimated at 4 mm per year, but more recent evidence is suggesting a much faster rate. Data on observed sea level changes from most parts of the world suggest that sea level is currently rising faster than the 2007 IPCC projections, lending credibility to the higher alternative projections.
Sea level rise is not some hypothetical future possibility – see figures 3-5 below. The images illustrate the situation right now in the Republic.
To be clear, the islands are not sinking, the sea level is rising. Underlying coral is not being dissolved by increasingly acidic ocean and causing the land to sublimate into the water. The islands sit on top of ancient seamounts and are likely to subside only in the event of a very significant and unlikely tectonic event. Google Earth shows this very clearly. The make-up of the islands is corals, sand and gravels from the early forming volcanic events. The land is thus somewhat permeable to water and this affects the local freshwater-saltwater relationship.
Freshwater resources are very limited, especially given the small size of the island which links to the size of aquifers. Figure 6 is a schematic of an island aquifer system, but it is not necessarily illustrative of Kiribati. Freshwater recharge is dependent upon rainfall. Precipitation patterns are expected to change, and annular variance is expected to increase because of CC. The rainfall may increase ~6% or decrease ~9%. The numbers are important. If rainfall drops 10%, that is a 14% loss of recharge. Or if rain increased by 7%, recharge would improve by 5.5%.
Actual rainfall changes won’t be clear for some time, but a reduction is more probable than an increase. If that is the case, fresh aquifer storage will decline.
In addition to the uncertainty of rainfall, there are other issues with the freshwater supply: seawater intrusion, pollution and over-drawn aquifers.
Saltwater intrusion can be caused by high tides, especially king tides and storm surge. As the sea level rises, seawater intrusion will have an increasing impact of the islands water quality. The main crop, a form of taro, is highly salt intolerant and already crops are declining.
The islands are poorly served by toilets and rubbish collection. As a result, human and animal waste finds its way into the drinking water, making it unsafe.
A further issue is that some aquifers are over-drawn. Too much water is extracted, or the wells draw on incorrect levels – see Figure 6. Overdrawn aquifers are not sustainable and increase the concentration of chlorides.
Kiribati depends on freshwater for drinking, cooking and agriculture. Salination and pollution of the water renders it unsuitable for those purposes. Freshwater quality and quantity are of the utmost importance and if the freshwater supply fails, the island will not sustain the present population.
As the water supply is being lost, so too is the natural capital. The sea degrades agricultural land and contaminates fresh water. Land is lost as the shoreline is eroded by tides and storm surge. Coral is being lost both by erosion and bleaching. Because of lower aragonite saturation coral replenishment is reduced leading to the net loss of corals. If corals are not replaced, lower fish stocks force a growing reliance on less healthy western style imports. The natural capital items of fresh water, agricultural land, mangroves, coconut trees and seafood resources are being steadily diminished – see Fig 7 below.
As natural capital is lost the carrying capacity of the islands is reduced. Lost mangroves reduce the nursery space of many species of sea life. Fewer corals reduces the habitat for many sea species, including fish. Coconuts are an important export crop and an important food for I-Kiribati. Loss of agricultural land is happening for several reasons. The foreshore is being eroded – see figs 4 & 7. On Tarawa the birth rate is 4.4% and immigration from outer islands is increasing because Tarawa is perceived as having better employment options. Residential land then displaces agricultural land.
To re-cap, Kiribati is being subjected to sea level rise that is impacting upon their freshwater supply, their food supply and the very land that is their home and repository of their culture. Their livelihood, so linked to their land for thousands of years is under dire threat. Sea levels will continue to rise, and recent evidence is that the rate of rise is increasing.
What can be done? It is fair to say that continued sea level rise is unstoppable. Even if we rein in the anthropological factors, the sea will continue to rise beyond what is survivable for Kiribati and other threatened places. There are four general options.
1. Engineer seawalls, elevate buildings etc.
2. Live with the hazards. An example is the Netherlands.
3. Leave the local area. Relocate to higher less vulnerable land.
4. Abandon the land.
The first option might offer temporary relief with respect to built environment. But seawalls invariably fail to the relentless sea that undermine foundations and tear walls down by the sheer force of waves.
The second option, living with the inundation is possible in the short term. Elevating buildings and re-wiring/plumbing is unlikely to be favoured as a long-term solution.
Option three – relocate – is possible but relocating on Kiribati is not possible because of its low topography.
Even if these options were available, the problem of inadequate fresh water and food supply would make the islands uninhabitable, perhaps as soon as 2030.
Option four, abandon the land and relocate the population appears as the inevitable step.
Former President Tong, after leading for the maximum 12 years stepped down in early 2016. Tong worked hard at seeking help from the international community to deal with the problems of rising sea level. Pashley 2016 cites Tong as saying that “Islanders will start leaving Kiribati in 2020 as rising seas make life too difficult…” In 2014, President Tong finalised the purchase of 20 Km2 of land near the village of Naviavia, Fiji’s second largest island, of Vanua Levu. A brief video of the new land is at http://www.alantoth.net/alan-toth-films/. Whilst Tong saw the need to secure the land on Fiji, his successor, President Maamau seems less committed to moving. His emphasis is on adaption and reliance upon Divine help.
Maamau recognises the great distress of I-Kiribati at the prospect of leaving their homeland. He understands their fear of losing their culture, their very way of life.
However, it is inevitable that the islands will need to be abandoned, and as mentioned earlier, the likely tipping point will be the loss of sufficient freshwater, sometime before inundation.
Perhaps a gradual dignified migration to Fiji will eventuate. Tong saw that people would start leaving Kiribati around 2020 as the rising sea level made life too difficult. Current President Maamau may seek to change the timing but will eventually be unable to deny the need to leave.
But to leave one place and situate in another brings many issues to the fore. For example:
- Will the people remain Kiribati nationals in their new country? What becomes of their sovereignty?
- How will the culture survive the transition? The move will take some years to achieve leading to some fragmentation of the people.
- What will become of the fishery rental from the exclusive economic zones?
- The new land on Fiji is quite different to Kiribati and is 1.5 km from the ocean, suggesting a considerable social impact upon arrivals.
- How will land be apportioned amongst arrivals. Presently Kiribati has mostly traditional ownership – can it be the same on Fiji?
- How well will the newcomers engage with the Fiji peoples?
To summarise, Kiribati has an existential problem with rising sea levels due to anthropologically induced climate change. Sea level change for Kiribati is unstoppable, and the fate of the Republic is certain – it will first become uninhabitable and eventually be completely inundated. There are many such places facing the same fate. At this time, it is intended that the I-Kiribati relocate to Fiji where the Republic has a rare freehold property. But, as mentioned above, leaving the islands and relocating to land raises many issues to be dealt with. Those issues will need to be dealt with largely by the I-Kiribati, because they are the guardians of their culture. Because their migration may take over a decade there will likely be changes to their culture associated with that fragmentation.
Part two of this paper will seek to address those issues and more.