Rising Tides, Vanishing Futures: Kiribati's Battle Against Climate Change

How Rising Seas Are Creating the World's First Climate Refugees and Threatening an Island Nation's Existence

According to the Pacific Climate Change Science program, sea levels around Kiribati have risen 1–4 mm per year since 1993. This sea-level rise has displaced communities to the point where citizens of Kiribati have become one of the first groups to be named climate refugees.

As stated in the research paper on climate change, food security and health in Kiribati, “rising sea levels, salinization of aquifers, coastal erosion, changing biodiversity, increasingly frequent ‘king tides’ (an especially high spring tide which occurs 3 to 4 times per year) and drought are repeatedly acknowledged as being on the increase, severely impacting both the socioeconomic and ecological environment of Kiribati.” This increase in environmental issues has already displaced and affected the ecology of Kiribati. Rising sea levels have affected the agricultural industry in Kiribati which makes up 23 percent of their economy.

Communities have found ways to cope with the sea-level rise, filling sandbags with concrete to stop the intrusion of saltwater into their land, but it is not enough. Production of coconuts, breadfruit, and pandanus have lessened due to saltwater intrusion and have caused crop yields to drop each year. As sea levels rise and crop yields dwindle, unemployment rates will increase as people find try to find new viable work, other than farming. This is difficult because the limited industry options make it hard to find work on a small island chain.

Water quality has gotten worse as saltwater has flowed into wells, which for some communities, is the only access to clean water they have. This has caused a decrease in the community’s access to fresh water needed for daily activities such as farming and clean drinkable water. Furthermore, Kiribati is prone to natural disasters such as weather storms, heavy rain, typhoons, and others. As climate change causes these natural disasters to become stronger, the clean water will become contaminated if mixed with the debris carried by floods, leading to a greater probability of disease.

Climate change also exacerbates ocean acidification off the coasts of Kiribati. The acidity of Kiribati’s water has been increasing and will continue to increase according to The Pacific Climate Change Science Program. As acidification increases, coral reef systems become weaker, increasing an island’s vulnerability to storms, floods, and other natural disasters. Coral reefs act as a protective shield from these natural disasters, and without them, the damage will be more severe in the coming years.

The health impact of climate change on the people of Kiribati is another major concern. According to John Paul Cauchi, a Ph.D. student at the Queensland University of Technology who spent 3 months in Kiribati researching climate change, food security, and health, the health of Kiribatians, their economy, and ecosystems, will likely suffer as their dependence on imported food increases.

Cauchi said, “This is happening due to a multitude of factors, such as changing lifestyles, population pressures and a focus on copra production (often at the expense of food production), however environmental shocks and hazards related to climate change are having a discernible effect, especially due to increasing salinity in the water table.”

“As more gardens and farms are affected or even destroyed by stronger king tide events, the crop yield drops which causes a reliance on things such as rice or corned beef,” Cauchi continued. “This is a problem because that means more people are being reliant on unhealthy imported foods that contribute to diabetes and other health issues.”

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Seventy-five percent of deaths in the Pacific region are due to NCDs according to the WHO. This is mainly due to imported foods being more prevalent in recent years which has caused a negative health effect on the people of Kiribati.

As climate change continues to affect Kiribati’s ecosystem and its inhabitants, mitigation methods need to be implemented to assure the safety of everyone. The citizens of Kiribati need to have clean drinking water, land to farm their native food, and a lifestyle that is not heavily impacted by climate change. Kiribati is one of the countries that have and will continue to face the consequences of unchecked fossil fuel usage by countries around the world unless we divest from fossil fuels and implement sustainable policies into our legislation now.