Friends of the Eath Kuranda’s President Pat Daly is currently in Kiribati – a tropical island nation in the mid-Pacific which has more than it’s share of environmental problems (including the prospect of being submerged by rising sea levels).
One of the countries often quoted as being at particular risk of sea level rise as a result of global warming is Kiribati [pronounced locally as “kire-bus”]. The Republic of Kiribati is a collection of remote scattered islands comprising an independent island nation roughly half way between Australia and Hawaii, part of which was known previously as the Gilbert Islands and a colony of Great Britain. Kiribati became an independent nation in 1979, Australia and New Zealand provides for its defence, and it uses Australian currency.
Kiribati sea view
Kiribati is small in land area with a total 811square kilometers spread over 33 scattered coral atolls, but has a huge ocean area of 3.5 million square kilometres, which provides a great deal of their income through selling fishing rights. The phosphate once exported has been long since exhausted.
The seat of commerce and government is the Tarawa atoll comprised of about 20 small islands arranged in an L shape, North Tarawa, a string of islands on one side of the Tarawa lagoon, and the more populated South Tarawa, several low island strips interconnected by a single rutted bitumen road over causeways with the lagoon on one side and the ocean on the other. A smiling face of a girl advertises Maggie soup on scattered billboards along the road.
At the junction of the L is an area just wide enough for a runway, and the planes from Fiji, over 1200 km to the south and at a cost of $800 for a one way economy ticket (enough to dissuade most tourists from visiting), land there twice a week, providing its only international air link.
When arriving at Bonriki International Airport, an arrivals sign directs passengers to a small traditional island building containing immigration, baggage collection, and customs. Outside the terminal, huge crowds of smiling locals welcome home and farewell relatives and friends.
The people of Tarawa are hospitable and always greet visitors with a friendly smile. The Christian churches play an important part in their spiritual and social life and, on the whole, they are honest and caring people mostly uncorrupted by Western values.
A less appealing side of Kiribati life
There are no taxis on Tarawa, but 12-seater mini buses compete on a hail and ride basis, driving at a frantic pace to outdo each other at providing a public transport service. Pedestrians and the local dogs scamper across the busy road oblivious or contemptuous of the buses.
Tarawa is a coral atoll near the equator with typical vegetation and climate of the South Pacific. The people rely on rain water from roofs and ground water from wells. With the rising sea levels and the increased demand, the ground water has become more saline effecting agriculture. Many people have moved from the more remote outer islands of Kiribati to Tarawa and, as a result, the population has grown dramatically to 43,000, which is about half the nation’s population of 102,000 and increasing by approximately four percent annually.
The atoll has beautiful scenery with opportunities for fishing, diving, and swimming. Tarawa is overcrowded with many people living in tin shanties or grass huts. Along the road are many abandoned rusty car bodies and rubbish. It soon becomes apparent that the concept of preventive maintenance is not well understood, as can be seen from the disrepair of many cement block homes and commercial premises.
Visitors are warned that fish caught in the lagoon are unfit to eat, and water from wells is unsafe to to drink due to faecal contamination.
The atoll was captured by the Japanese in 1941 and, in 1943; it was liberated by an American amphibious assault. Large smashed field guns, pill boxes, and other war debris can still be seen on the beaches.
The Australian government, due in part to Kiribati’s strategic importance, has a permanent High Commission on the atoll, and last year spent $45 million in humanitarian aid to Kiribati. Aid also comes from New Zealand and Taiwan as well as many other countries and organisations.
At the end of the day, the long term future of Kiribati, with its exploding population and rising sea levels, looks grim. The people of Kiribati might well be the first environmental refugees in the Pacific and likely turn to Australia as that place of refuge.