The everyday lives of climate change: Encounters in Kiribati

Post written by Dr Anja Kanngieser

Kiribati, one of the large ocean states most immediately threatened by the effects of climate change, is as remote as it is expansive. Comprising 33 atolls and reef islands, which have a combined landmass of around 313 square miles, Kiribati spreads over 3.5 million square miles uniquely reaching across all four global hemispheres. The population is estimated at around 118, 000 with over 50, 000 people living in the capital South Tarawa alone (around 9, 500 or so people per square mile) – an urban density to rival London or Hong Kong but clustered into small villages and communities rather than channeled upwards into high rises. Sitting at only 2 meters above sea level and with an average width of under 500 meters, the archipelago is defined by its waters – you are quite literally in eye line of both the ocean and the lagoon at almost all times. This is where myself and University of the South Pacific marine conservation student, Krystelle Lavaki, stayed when we went to speak with I-Kiribati climate justice advocates and educators about the impacts of rising sea levels, inundation and coastal erosion. Along with speaking to activists, we planned to listen to and record the marine and coastal environments.

Arriving into Kiribati, specifically Tarawa, is to see from above the chain of islands linked together by human made causeways and bridges, constructions that are both connecting villages and, as local community members argue, disrupting the crucial flows and currents of the ocean and lagoon.

Photo courtesy of Krystelle Lavaki

Photo courtesy of Krystelle Lavaki

Kiribati, along with neighbouring Tuvalu, has been identified as acutely vulnerable to climate change, due to vectors of economic poverty, high rates of communicable diseases and early mortality, unemployment and ecosystemic stress, and is often used to exemplify the risks being faced in the region more broadly. Colonised by Britain in 1892 and subsequently devastated by the brutal extraction of phosphate from Banaba (which stripped away over 90% of the islands surface), Kiribati is now most commonly represented as a series of ‘sinking islands’. The nation has become emblematic for discussions about climate relocation and eventual migration due to sea level rise. This was an issue frequently raised by former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, who drew the world’s attention to the increasingly recurrent inundations and issues of overpopulation and westernization faced by the I-Kiribati people.

Photo credit Krystelle Lavaki

Photo credit Krystelle Lavaki

Our work in Kiribati was to listen to the voices of those involved in climate justice, working towards self-determination. The concentration on climate change and advocacy is the remit of KiriCan, the I-Kiribati organization leading education and community work around present impacts of environmental change on agriculture, water, health and housing. During our time in Kiribati, we were able to meet with both the President and Vice President of the organization about the initiatives that they undertake, along with their sister organization the Kiribati Health Retreat Association, which focuses on rehabilitation of common health issues faced on Tarawa and the other islands.  At the core of their work is informing community members about their legal and human rights (such as the right to clean water and waste management), education on the planting of fruits and vegetables not endemic to Kiribati, solutions to sea water inundation of wells and drinking water, and discussions of the different issues faced by people in the heavily populated Betio. Rather than concentrate on migration (which they say is awkward and contentious), the group tends towards supporting everyday subsistence efforts. Noting the increasing scarcity of fish (compounded by the selling of fishing licenses to commercial deep sea trawlers from China and Korea), and the reliance on imported and exorbitantly expensive food such as canned goods (spam, corned beef, salad creams) and fresh fruit (around $3 AUD for an apple), KiriCan pay attention to developing small plots of land for the growth of local greens and the re-inclusion of growable fruit (coconut, noni, papaya) into diets. Community based education on waste disposal is also a priority as waste management both in Tarawa and the outer islands has not kept up with the huge influx of packaged goods and population increase, seen in high levels of plastic pollution rife on the reefs and common grounds.

Coastal erosion and inundation is also an issue that is distinctly present, and one that is notable equally across the outer islands and on Tarawa itself. At high tide it is not unusual to see waves washing over sea walls, lapping close to the roads and flooding animal enclosures.

Photo credit Anja Kanngieser

Photo credit Anja Kanngieser

Photo credit Anja Kanngieser

Photo credit Anja Kanngieser

Government, NGO and community efforts to respond to rising waters through heavy duty large sand bags, mangrove planting, concrete sea walls and locally built coral rock sea walls have only done so much to protect houses and roads to this stage. As KiriCan pointed out, the economic disparities between adjoining houses and villages means that while one family might be able to afford a sea wall those next door might not, leaving them highly likely to be submerged. Opinions on sea walls themselves are mixed; while they provide immediate protection, they have been criticized for changing the flow of ocean currents and tides, with some locals arguing that such interventions are making the situation worse. This is a complaint leveled more so at the building of causeways along the island chains, which, while allowing for faster mobility, has completely changed the rhythms and natural drainage of the lagoon (which, in the absence of indoor plumbing, is used by many for washing and as a toilet, as well as for fishing). Mangrove planting has been upheld as a beneficial and successful way to stem erosion and support reef marine life, and along the lagoon side young mangroves dot the sand, evidence of robust mitigation efforts.

Photo credit Anja Kanngieser

Photo credit Anja Kanngieser

While climate change and its attendant challenges may be witnessed here as a frontline territory, what is clear is that it is viewed by now as quite ordinary. On a day when the spring tide was particularly high due to a full moon, reaching up to 2.18 meters, and waves were washing over sand dunes into houses, children played in the sea and people fished off their sea walls. While pigs were all but paddling in their pens, people sat by the lagoon in groups eating ice blocks. SUVs and 4x4s, the car of choice in Tarawa, drove through seawater on the roads – only we stopped to take photos. When asked about climate change, a couple of the people that we spoke to said that they didn’t know about it, and weren’t affected; that people in Tuvalu had it worse, and Kiribati was lucky not being in the path of cyclones and tsunamis. We were told that the elders wanted to stay on their islands and did not want to talk about migration, that people were happy in their homes and that they didn’t know what would come but they put their trust in God. Even here in Kiribati, the temporalities of climate change, the steady creep of the daily challenges and ongoing efforts, the slow violences, sit in strange relationship to the more spectacular and catastrophic expectations of what climate crisis looks like.

Photo credit Anja Kanngieser

Photo credit Anja Kanngieser

If we are to follow the predictions of climate scientists and the IPCC, Kiribati is, without a doubt, in a precarious position. There is not much land to accommodate a growing population, and there is no higher ground to be moved to. Fresh water wells, often no more than concrete lined holes in the ground, are being filled with saltwater, in part from the heavy use on them as more people from the outer islands migrate to the capital.

Photo credit Anja Kanngieser

Photo credit Anja Kanngieser

There are serious concerns about food security, and about housing being robust enough to withstand stronger winds and encroaching seas. In the face of these threats, organisations such as KiriCan have a steady belief in the necessity of maintaining traditional knowledge and incorporating Indigenous practices with Western science. As the examples of the causeways and sea walls show, there are compelling arguments to be made to bring these knowledges into dialogue, at the very least. At the very best, rather than look to superficial solutions, more work must be done to bring local knowledge to the forefront of discussions on how I-Kiribati can maintain self-determination despite neocolonial regimes that would rather build walls than radically address the causes underpinning the need. This is a question of how to enact climate justice and hold accountable those contributing most substantially to ecosystemic collapse. As was emphasized to us by several I-Kiribati, the loss of the I-Kiribati culture through migration and relocation is something to be fought hard against. And the stakes have never been higher, in the words of the President of KiriCan, there are many that refuse to leave, that want to be “buried in their sand”. From the vantage point of the Global North it can seem like the effects of climate change lie somewhere far in the future, at present more a discomfort and moral quandary than a lived reality. But on the island of Tarawa, this is a daily challenge faced by everyone, and one that has become so normalized that it is no longer held to be exceptional.

Photo credit Anja Kanngieser

Photo credit Anja Kanngieser

Dr Anja Kanngieser is a Vice Chancellors Fellow with
Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research (AUSCCER) and The School of Geography and Sustainable Communities. Anja’s last blog can be found here: New media for transmitting Pacific stories: podcasting and audio recording

You can follow Anja on Twitter here @geotransversals

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