Kiribati – Planning for the future

The I-Kiribati (as the citizens of Kiribati are known) are a strong and proud people. Their culture – the katei or traditional way of life – involves a strong sense of personal pride, respect, and openness to foreigners. The I-Kiribati also have a deep spiritual connection to their land.

However, rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and saltwater intrusion into drinking water sources mean that by 2030 Kiribati may well become uninhabitable. In time, many of the nation’s 23 islands could be completely submerged.

Linda Uan, media producer for the Kiribati government and climate change advocate, lamented this reality in her recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, stating “our people will be scattered, and the survival of our unique culture, lifestyle and even our language, may be lost forever”.

The I-Kiribati are doing what they can to mitigate some of the effects of climate change in the immediate future. The Kiribati Adaptation Program (KAP), which is funded by the World Bank, the Global Environmental Facility, the Policy and Human Resources Development Fund, and the governments of Australia and New Zealand, is one component of Kiribati’s overall adaptation programming. The KAP is a $5.5 million, three-stage initiative which involves improving water supply management, actively managing coastal areas (for example, by replanting mangroves and protecting public infrastructure), strengthening laws to reduce coastal erosion, and planning population settlements to reduce risks to public safety.

In addition, donors are working with Kiribati to implement other adaption projects. For example, in February this year, the Australian Government pledged 15 million Australian dollars ($15.1 million) to restore 40 kilometers (24.85 miles) of a main road in the capital, South Tarawa. South Tarawa is the most populated island of Kiribati, but it has just one main road which connects numerous communities to vital services and income opportunities. Over time, rising sea levels and coastal erosion have degraded the road, making it inaccessible to some residents. The rebuilt road will provide more than 40 percent of the population with better access to health clinics, schools, and markets.

Unfortunately, sea walls are no longer effective in stopping the sea water from reaching fresh water reserves and food crops, and rising sea levels have caused irreversible erosion in many areas. As a result, Kiribati has depleted its stocks of rice and is now importing more than half of its food. In response, the Kiribati government has taken measures to ensure food security, such as purchasing land in Fiji for growing vegetables, fruit, and meat for import.

When considering Kiribati’s plight, it must be borne in mind that adaptation is just one piece of the puzzle, and that it must be accompanied by a global effort to reduce carbon emissions. That is, if sea levels continue to rise, then there may be no habitable land on which to adapt.  

Moreover, current funding for adaptation programs is entirely insufficient. And unless developing countries are backed by the full weight and resources of the international community, their efforts to adapt will fall short.

Davina Wadley is a former fellow with the Refugees International climate displacement program.