Kiribati’s Warning to the World: The threat of rising sea levels

Sea levels continue to rise at a rate of 3.3 mm per year, with the latest climate estimates projecting that sea levels could rise by six feet by the end of this century. This is a concern of global warming that we are all aware of, yet it’s difficult to imagine the tangibility of this crisis affecting us in our lifetime. However, small islands are especially vulnerable to the threats of rising sea levels and continue to see the rapid impact of the climate crisis. 

In the past few years, small, uninhabited islands in Hawaii, the Arctic and Japan have been disappearing under the ocean. These islands serve as a warning of the danger other low-lying island nations face, such as the nation of Kiribati. Rising sea levels are destroying the tropical island; but, not all small islands have to suffer the same fate as Kiribati’s population. Though Kiribati will be hit hard by climate change in this century, it is not too late to save the country from destruction.

Kiribati has the smallest carbon footprint in the world, with the entire Pacific region contributing only 0.03% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, it disproportionately suffers due to climate change, as frequent storms bring strong waves, destroying villages and agricultural land, and rising sea levels threaten the entire existence of the small island. Since the 1970s, climate change has brought stronger winds and waves to the island’s coastline, overwhelming the sea walls designed to protect their villages. Anote Tong, who served as the President of Kiribati from 2003 to 2016, described a village in Abaiang, Kiribati, which only has a church and a meetinghouse. 

“Just these two buildings sitting out there in the middle of the sea. The rest of the village has gone,” Tong said. 

Tong has also encouraged residents to leave Kiribati, projecting that they would have to evacuate regardless within the next five to ten years.  Additionally, Kiribati’s economy relies on fisheries and the agricultural sector. Rising sea temperatures reduce fish stock and saltwater contaminating agricultural land reduces crop yield. The impacts of rising sea levels are damning and contribute to economic decline and food insecurity in Kiribati. Saltwater also infiltrates drinking water supplies, which will lead to a shortage of clean drinking water

These gradual changes have also been accompanied by large-scale, and sudden, natural disasters. Climate change increases the frequency of cyclone events and intensifies their rainfall and wind speed. This is because warmer waters have higher amounts of heat energy, which increases the likelihood of a tropical storm forming. A 2013 study found a substantial increase in Category 4 and 5 cyclones, by 25-30%, due to anthropogenic global warming. While the Climate Change Report of 2011 listed Kiribati as low risk for cyclones, in 2015, Kiribati was struck by Cyclone Pam, a Category 5 storm that flooded coastal infrastructure and destroyed their seawalls, leaving them vulnerable to further flooding and destruction.

President Tong has anticipated that Kiribati will be under the ocean within the current century and has launched the Migration With Dignity policy that allows its citizens to apply for jobs in neighboring countries in an effort to reduce the number of residents who will need to evacuate Kiribati when sea levels get too high. In 2014, Tong also purchased 20 sq km of land in Fiji, 2,000 km away in an attempt to find somewhere for the 110,000 people who live in Kiribati to take refuge. Other small island states, such as the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, are following Kiribati’s lead in purchasing land elsewhere and preparing to leave. Tong has stressed that despite what the major players, such as the United States and China, decide to do today, it is too late for his people. He hopes his experiences will serve as a strong message to the rest of the world so they can prevent it from happening to other island states.

Conservative estimates for climate-induced refugees predict that, at least, 200 million people by 2050 will be fleeing climate-related disasters. Unlike refugees fleeing from conflict or persecution, climate-induced refugees fleeing from rising sea levels do not have hope of returning to their homes. Not all of the island states facing this threat are buying land in other nations since some governments do not believe that they will sink and are instead opting to build up. But, there will likely not be enough allocated land for all of the refugees, forcing them to flee to neighboring nation-states in the hopes of finding a place they can call home. If we want to prevent a global security issue where 200 million climate refugees have nowhere to go, it is up to the international community to take bold, collaborative steps forward to combat climate change.

The biggest challenge is that there is a lack of support from the more wealthy states when it comes to providing aid to these smaller island states. Current international efforts are focused on the relocation of at-risk populations. New Zealand, for example, provides an annual lottery for 75 Kiribati citizens to resettle in New Zealand. However, relocation should not be the only option for the suffering islands. 

With international aid, many islands, including Kiribati, may be able to be saved from sinking. Hard engineering technologies can be used to protect, reclaim and build up the islands. The Palm Islands in Dubai are artificial islands built using land reclamation, which involves dredging sand and material and then vibro-compressing it using GPS technology. If the international community helped fund projects like this for Pacific Islands, it would help protect the people of these islands, as well as increasing the resilience of their islands to the forces of climate change. The states who drove this climate crisis need to take a stand with those being most affected by it and provide them with the support they need to survive.

For additional reading, article by Matthieu Rytz. Read more about the sinking islands here.

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