Kiribati's Sinking Islands (And How Some Policies Might Help)
Kiribati is an island country made up of a chain of 33 islands in Oceania (the central Pacific Ocean). Though picturesquely beautiful and rich in unique cultures, the country is one of the first to suffer from the damage that climate change has done to our world. Ice caps, ice sheets, and glaciers are all melting, causing rising oceans that threaten an island nation like Kiribati since most of their islands are less than seven feet above sea level (1). Already, two of their islands Abanuea and Tebua Tarawa are under water — they became fully submerged in 1999. Though neither of these islands were inhabited, Tebua Tarawa was popular with fishermen, who now can no longer take advantage of the island. Storm surges are another problem. The sea water that washes ashore during storms floods houses and kills crops. Kiribati soil is not very fertile or accommodating for agriculture as it is, and the salt from storm surges only makes it worse.
Climate change is also causing coral bleaching in the ocean — which in turn causes the fish population to decline — and spoils Kiribati’s fresh water sources. Fish are the main source of protein for the people of Kiribati; with their agricultural prospects looking bleak and their main source of protein diminishing, the people of Kiribati are running out of food. With less access to fresh water, health problems are growing. Typhoid fever, diarrhea, dengue fever, malaria, and leptospirosis are some of the most prominent diseases commonly found in places negatively impacted by climate change. Citizens have tried to build walls made of coral rocks in an attempt to keep the sea water out, but they are ruined in the high tide. The islands of Kiribati will not last much longer, and drastic changes need to be made if the islands are to be saved.
The government and citizens of Kiribati are working to find solutions to their imminent problem. Residents have started to take simple actions, such as moving towns farther inland and planting mangrove trees to keep storm surges at bay. However, these actions alone are not enough. One solution is to build houses on large floating platforms. The problem with this idea is that it would cost around $2 million (2). Considering that the cost of building floating platforms exceeds Kiribati’s GDP (2), this plan is not feasible. At this point, the best solution is to relocate elsewhere. Kiribati’s government bought land in Fiji and currently uses it to grow crops; they also plan to use it as a place to evacuate Kiribati’s citizens if the country does become submerged. The New Zealand government has also opened its borders and allows 75 (3) Kiribatians to migrate there per year.
Kiribati only contributes about 0.6% (4) of the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, yet they are disproportionately being affected by climate change. While Kiribati is the one of the first countries to be harmed, it is only a matter of time before more countries are hurting. If climate change continues on its current path, cities as far inland as Los Angeles and London will eventually become submerged as well. Kiribati has joined with other island countries to fight climate change and are openly pushing for policies that cut down on the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted. Kiribati is working to save their islands, but they cannot do it alone. They need the support and cooperation of everyone. Climate change is not a problem that people can solve individually, we all need to work together to fight it.
(1) “Effects of climate change in Kiribati”. The World Bank, uploaded by The World Bank, 8 August 2021.
(2) Iberdrola, n.d., para. 8
(3) Iberdrola, n.d., para. 9
(4) Iberdrola, n.d., para. 6
Cover Photo: BBC Future