Sunday 24 September 2017

In deep water: the first country in the world to surrender to global warming

The Republic of Kiribati is the most remote inhabited location on earth. It will no longer exist by 2050. Climate change is slowly stealing the land into the sea and soaking the ground in saltwater. The prognosis right now is that Kiribati is dying by gradually drowning. Elaine Byrne reports from the first country in the world to surrender to global warming

‘Infant mortality is over 10 times the rate of that in Ireland’ — Little Aareau lives on the remote island of North Tarawa in Kiribati. She had never seen a camera before.
‘Infant mortality is over 10 times the rate of that in Ireland’ — Little Aareau lives on the remote island of North Tarawa in Kiribati. She had never seen a camera before.
‘It’s very hard to leave your own country. I love my country, I’m proud of who I am’— Ioteba stands where his father’s house used to be
‘It is the drinking water that will be the problem, not the ocean’ — from left, Sr Eileen Kennedy, Sr Aileen Crowe, and Sr Margaret Sullivan in the convent in Kiribati
‘If the high tide is still coming, there’s no use in building the wall’ — a child plays on a sea wall in South Tarawa
‘Nobody will truly understand until they come here to visit. Not only see but feel’— President Anote Tong in the presidential office
‘Arawe lives in a space the size of a small Irish bedroom with eight other family members’ — Arawe and his family

Elaine Byrne

'Normally the land was further, what is the word in English?' Ioteba pauses, searching for the vocabulary to describe what is happening to his people. "Corrosion," he says.

We are standing on the shaggy sand of the shoreline where his father's home used to be. The tropical waters from the lagoon are lapping at his bare feet as he rearranges his garden of piercing black coral rocks.

The father of four from the Taborio village repeats this routine with his 200 rocks each day. A one-man barricade against an ocean.

Ioteba is from the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, the most remote inhabited location on earth. Halfway between the nothingness of Australia and Hawaii, this collection of 32 atolls is strung out like a pearl necklace of lagoons across an area of ocean the size of America.

Yet this tiny crescent of far-flung land, populated by just 100,000, will enter into common parlance with every business, farmer and politician in Ireland before the centenary commemoration of 2016.

Ioteba's home, like that of virtually all the Kiribati people, is less than 10m from the shoreline. The small dwelling rests on stilts shaped from the wood of the pandanus tree that Ioteba tied together with string he fashioned from the fibres of coconut husks. The thatched roof is made from pandanus leaves, while the walls are created from the mid ribs of a coconut leaf. A storm surge would need only one wave to eat it all.

The high ratio of coastline-to-land area makes the archipelago, formerly known as the Gilbert Islands, particularly exposed to coastal flooding. The entire country sits barely two metres above sea level, which means its highest point is the height of Irish rugby international, Paul O'Connell. This physical geography and rising sea levels has created the perfect storm.

The Republic of Kiribati will no longer exist in 2050, when Paul O'Connell is double the age he is now. Climate change is slowly stealing the land into the sea and soaking the ground in saltwater. Kiribati is dying by gradually drowning. It will be the first country in the world to surrender to global warming.

There is a sense of hopelessness in watching Ioteba reshuffle the rocks like some jigsaw puzzle he can't finish. "The sea has started to come up to the road. We build a sea wall to stop the water. Otherwise we will . . ." Ioteba can't find the words so he laughs instead. He laughs a lot, which is charming but confusing.

The 40-year-old explains that Kiribati people laugh when they are nervous. "If the high tide is still coming, there's no use in building the wall. We might as well build the wall going up to the sky," he jokes.

His fishing nets are hanging on a tree near where his three pigs are tied. Ioteba is unemployed and survives on subsistence fishing, as is the case for 58pc of the population, according to the Secretariat of the Pacific Community.

There is an inevitability to it all. The midday heat has confined us to the shade of his coconut tree on South Tarawa, the most populous Kiribati Island. We watch Ioteba's six-year-old son catching fish with his hands in the same place his grandfather built the first coral seawall 37 years ago. A postcard picture of paradise hiding a nightmare reality.

A few days earlier, the 3.9m king tide breached Ioteba's makeshift seawall and seeped into his home.

"If the tide was four metres," he laughs, trailing off. Survival here, at this intersection of the Equator and the International Date Line, is measured in centimetres. "If the sea tides keep happening then we'll have no choice but to leave our place, our country."

The reality of Ioteba's life compelled the President of Kiribati to buy 5,000 acres of land in Fiji earlier this year. President Anote Tong bought the dense forest for AUS$8.77m (¤6m), with a view to relocating his entire country 2,000 miles away "when the time is right and when it becomes necessary."

The 62-year-old western-educated politician of Chinese heritage is sitting in the presidential office, wearing the traditional hakama. "You know it as a man skirt," he smiles. It is lunchtime on the last day of the parliamentary session and Tong is visibly exhausted. "Members of parliament are coming in and they are saying, 'What can you do, what can the government do?'"

Members of parliament have travelled for several days from the outer islands by traditional canoe to give first-hand accounts of the impact of the summer high tides. Communities have been forced to relocate to other parts of the island. Many more are requesting help to move. "Quite frankly, we don't have the resources to respond adequately,"he says, throwing his arms up in exasperation.

Tong's quiet desperation is rehearsed and resigned. "People who have the mountains behind them all their life will never understand."

The threat of being "swamped any moment" has conceived a continuous sense of vulnerability. There is nowhere to go when the high waves come.

The concept of stairs is foreign to most Kiribati inhabitants. The solitary escalator in the former British protectorate is manned by an officious man with a wooden stick. His full-time job is to show the supermarket shoppers how to step on and off the moving steps. Dozens of locals stand around watching their neighbours grip the handrail as they mechanically descend heights alien to their natural senses. On the bus from the airport in Fiji, Kiribati children wore silent expressions of outright bewilderment, pointing to the earth in the sky.

Rising sea levels attract the global headlines and flow of aid money but this is not the only threat to Kiribati's survival. International consultants working in the Pacific have privately expressed their frustration at the depth and pace of Tong's policy reforms.

The President is trying but struggling to tackle rampant urbanisation, the ongoing crisis of inadequate sanitation and access to waste disposal and uncontaminated freshwater.

Sister Margaret Sullivan (85) and Sister Eileen Kennedy (83) have lived in the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart convent on South Tawara for 60 years. These two American grandchildren of Irish emigrants are not convinced that global warming is to blame for everything.

Sr Sullivan points to demographic challenges which have created a vicious circle. The population of the South Tarawa island, the commercial centre of Kiribati, has increased tenfold since the nuns arrived. The World Bank has warned that this continuing high rate of growth places unsustainable pressure on housing, water and health services.

The population density of South Tarawa is almost equal to that of London, says the World Bank. This exceptional concentration of people has placed land at a premium. Arawe (30), a neighbour of Ioteba's, lives in a space the size of a small Irish bedroom with eight other family members. Yet Arawe is considered relatively well-off because his family have land for five pigs, an open stone well for water and a garden of immaculately tended tomatoes and cabbages.

Apart from coconuts, fish and pigs, the food supply of Kiribati is practically entirely reliant on processed imports because there is not enough land to cultivate crops. Sr Sullivan notes a recent medical survey which shows that over 50pc of the inhabitants have diabetes as a consequence of poor diet. Obesity is especially problematic.

Sr Kennedy, a cousin of the former American president John F Kennedy, acknowledges that although the sea is "certainly rising," it is "the drinking water that will be the problem, not the ocean."

Water quality is easily contaminated because the surface soil is susceptible to saltwater intrusion and pollution permutation. The Kiribati tradition is to bury their loved ones in the front yard. Sanitation involves a short walk to the beach for most citizens. The upshot is scourges of diarrhoea. Infant mortality is thus very high, over ten times the rate of that in Ireland according to Unicef figures.

Tong concedes that the views of the nuns on the explosion in population growth "are challenges we have to face in addition to the erosion and declining land mass." He maintains that the government is "giving it the highest priority."

Nonetheless, there is dismay at the momentum at which South Tarawa is deteriorating. On the night before he left Kiribati for his New Zealand home, I was invited to Kaa's family home for the traditional emigrant wake familiar to generations of Irish families.

This was Kaa's first time to return home since he emigrated 14 years previously. It was a country the 40-year-old tradesman struggled to recognise. "The island is very small but there're more people but they're not working," he says, clearly shocked.

Kiribati is in double-whammy terrority. It is not just about climate change. This cocktail of environmental vulnerability and socio-economic fragility will never be resolved by Ioteba reshuffling his 200 rocks each day.

President Tong has a specific message for Mary Robinson: "Come and see. If you want to know what is happening in terms of climate change, come and see what is happening to those at the lower end of the spectrum."

Mary Robinson's appointment as the UN Special Envoy for Climate Change last July was a statement of intent by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. The world's most important treaty on climate change, the Kyoto Protocols, will be replaced by the Paris Protocols late next year. For the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, a new legally binding and universal agreement on reducing greenhouse emissions will be introduced.

Tong has asked privately what the chances are of the former Irish president seeing his message. He clasps his hands and leans forward. "Nobody will truly understand until they come here to visit. Not only see but feel. So the advice is this: Without that passion there would not be that full commitment." Tong wants Robinson to see for herself that there is nowhere to go when the King Tide swallows everything.

Robinson is tasked with mobilising political action ahead of this 2015 Paris Summit. Her first test was last month's UN Climate Change Summit in New York.

In advance of these negotiations, the Irish Government has already made it clear that Ireland is unlikely to meet its existing 2020 greenhouse gas reduction targets, never mind any proposed new ones. A recent briefing report by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has admitted that Ireland may miss these objectives which will expose the Exchequer to hundreds of millions of euro in fines.

Mary Robinson shares Tong's concerns. Her first speech as UN Special Envoy for Climate Change was delivered at the Small Island Developing States conference in Samoa in September.

"This is about people, it's about survival. It's hitting the small island states now," Robinson said. "It will displace people."

The relocation of an entire nation to another jurisdiction 2,000 miles away because of climate change sounds far-fetched. But this is what the future looks like, argues Malcolm Fraser, the former Australian Prime Minister.

Fraser was agnostic on environmental issues but turned full circle when he resigned his membership of the Liberals in 2009 when climate sceptic Tony Abbott took charge. The 84-year-old believes that "the little word relocation" will be a significant part of the budgets of developed countries within half a century.

He asserts that more and more territories in the Pacific and south-east Asia will become uninhabitable because of rising sea levels. "And then the UN, probably led by the US, will start looking around at which countries are the least inhabited. Australia will be number one on the list."

New Zealand has already anticipated the flow of "climate refugees", providing 75 visas to Kiribati citizens every year. In June, New Zealand granted residency to a family from the neighbouring Pacific Island of Tuvalu who successfully claimed refugee status on the basis of climate change.

Why should Ireland care what happens to strips of land on the edge of the world? "I believe the Irish people are a very moral people," Tong says. "If you are a human being then you care for what's happening to those human beings as a consequence of the actions of human beings."

Ioteba's daily jigsaw of two hundred coral rocks and the traverse of wooden canoes across the Pacific to the Kiribati parliament have a direct bearing on Irish life. Debate on climate change is no longer confined to polar bears and abstract academics theories, but as Tong forcibly articulates, "threatens our very survival as a people now".

The physical evidence of global warming on the Pacific nation has given the UN a symbolic "poster child" to rally around in advance of negotiations on the 2015 Paris Protocols. On his visit to the islands in 2011, Ban Ki-Moon described Kiribati as being at the "front of the frontlines" on climate change.

Ireland is an outlier within the EU because farming is contingent on emissions-intensive beef and dairy agribusiness. Agricultural production contributes to one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions, three times the EU average. Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney's ambitions to transform agriculture into "a big economic department" require a substantial increase in food production as proposed in his 'Food Harvest 2020' plan. This puts Ireland at odds with emissions targets unless the Irish agri-industry can produce carbon-efficient food while retaining strategic competitiveness. "Climate-smart agriculture" will be the in-vogue phrase as the 2015 Paris Summit approaches.

International negotiations on climate change have omitted the agricultural sector. The proposed 2015 Paris Protocols may change that, leaving Ireland's €24bn agri-food business especially vulnerable because of our existing high omissions and an economic policy which may expose Ireland to higher outputs.

Tong and his country will be the face of these moral arguments for tougher emissions targets, a negotiation position which may make Ireland's agricultural strategy more difficult to achieve.

The 2015 Paris Protocols may mean higher prices for energy sources such as electricity and gas which are derived from fossil fuels. The same could potentially apply for rates on water and waste disposal to landfill. The cost of homes could possibly increase as construction materials such as cement, steel, aluminium and glass become more expensive.

All of this is already too late for Ioteba and his 200 rocks. "It's very hard to leave your own country. I love my country, I'm proud of who I am," he says. Ioteba's bare feet are always wet where his father's house used to be. "But I think we have no other choice if the tide keeps coming up," he says, laughing.

This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

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