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That sinking feeling in Kiribati

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A fisherman wades along the shoreline in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati.   © Reuters

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- No one knows with any scientific certainty whether the central Pacific nation of Kiribati will sink beneath a rising sea, but its leadership is not taking any chances. The talk now is about "migration with dignity."

     Kiribati's 102,000 people -- known collectively as i-Kiribati -- are busily arming themselves with skills to help them forge new lives elsewhere. For some, this means learning lucrative ways of catching tuna, for others, it involves being taught how to provide nursing care for elderly Westerners.

     The country's president, Anote Tong, a 62-year-old London School of Economics graduate, wants his people to be desirable migrants "when our islands can no longer sustain human life."

     Kiribati and its neighbor, Tuvalu -- together once known as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, a British protectorate -- are poster nations for countries threatened by rising sea levels as a result of global warming. 

    In March, their survival came into focus when particularly high tides and a weather system that eventually became Cyclone Pam caused big waves to slam into Kiribati's capital, Tarawa, an atoll that is never more than 5 meters above sea level.

     The tempest badly damaged a hospital, drove boats aground, wrecked homes, swamped vegetable gardens and killed breadfruit trees. Roads and causeways, including the 3.4km Japanese-built Dai Nippon causeway, were torn up.

     Michael Foon, Kiribati's disaster official, said 3-meter waves, once rare, are now common."This is the first time that we've seen this sort of extensive flooding," he said. It was the same in Tuvalu, home to 10,500 people.

     Maulio Kaipeti, who lives on Kiribati's Niutao atoll, watched the waves grow larger. "I thought, 'If it's God's will to wash me away, so be it.'"


Man with bike walking in-between islets in Kiribati. Residents fear that the whole nation will be under water due to global warming. (Photo by Michael Field)

    Cyclone Pam went on to kill 24 people in Vanuatu, an island nation to the south.

     Around half of Kiribati's people live in slumlike conditions on South Tarawa, a strip of land about 20km long and never more than a kilometer wide. It is one of the most crowded places in the Pacific. A United Nations Environment Program report says sea levels in the Western Pacific, which includes Tuvalu and Kiribati, rose 12mm a year between 1993 and 2009, four times the global average.

"Too late"

Tong, Kiribati's president, believes parts of his country will be submerged by around 2030. "The science is telling us it is already too late for us."

     Kiribati's climate unit, which is affiliated with the president's office, says extensive coastal erosion has forced people to evacuate land that has been inhabited since the early 1900s.

     Coconut and papaya trees and other varieties of vegetation that are an important part of life in Kiribati are dying off.

     "The average i-Kiribati certainly thinks it's getting hotter," Emil Shutz, a former government official, is quoted as saying on the country's official climate website. "Ten years ago they could fish all day, but not any more -- it is just too hot."

     Tong has proposed various solutions for his country, including one that involves people living on oil rig-style platforms. He now favors migration, though he told the U.N. General Assembly it would be the last resort.

     "For this [migration] to happen, our people must be in a position to provide the skills that are needed in the receiving countries," Tong said. "This creates a 'win-win' situation, where both Kiribati and the receiving country benefit."

     Kiribati and Tuvalu have always produced hardy seafarers: Around 15% of the former's gross domestic product comes from the supply of crew. Some work for cargo ships and others join fishing vessels that have traveled all the way from Japan, Taiwan or South Korea to fish in Kiribati's tuna-rich 3.5-million-sq.-km exclusive economic zone -- an area slightly larger than India. These Asian ships -- which at any given time hire around 300 i-Kiribati men -- have been coming since the 1960s.

     In 1989 the Fisheries Training Centre was established in Kiribati with the backing of Japan's tuna fishery industry. It trains around 72 people a year to become shipping crew.

     But a major hitch is that the economics of long-distance fishing relies on hiring low-wage crews, a senior diplomatic source told the Nikkei Asian Review. Tong wants the i-Kiribati to be able to fetch higher wages once they have emigrated.

     A potentially more lucrative strategy involves improving the skills of Kiribati's local fishermen who specialize in catching skipjack tuna, also known as stripe-bellied bonito. Mainly fishing for subsistence today, they are being taught to be more productive through a training scheme funded by Japan and the European Union so that they can sell their catches wherever they live.

     Japan is the largest export market for Kiribati, importing yellowfin tuna and skipjack. But according to the U.N. Commodity Trade Statistics Database, less than 1% of Japan's yellowfin tuna imports and about 2.5% of its skipjack imports come from Kiribati.

     Local fishermen still exclusively use the pole-and-line method, forgoing nets in favor of a long pole, a line and a hook. When out on the water, they array themselves along the side of the boat, flicking the tuna onto the deck when they hook one.

     This approach may not enable the volume capable with nets, but it has its advantages. Unlike with nets, there is almost no by-catch, undersized fish can be released, and in many markets, fish caught this way fetch premium prices.

     One idea is for the i-Kiribati to move to the isolated Kiritimati (Christmas) atoll, which is part of Kiribati but 3,400km east of Tarawa. It has 48% of the country's land but a population of just 7,000. And crucially, it shows no damage from rising sea levels. It has no air link to Tarawa, but it does host flights to Hawaii, offering the potentially highly profitable prospect of flying chilled fish straight to Honolulu.

     Besides seafood, Kiritimati has another key asset -- its natural beauty. U.S.-British nuclear tests were conducted there in the 1950s and early 1960s, but there are no radiation issues today. The only legacies of that time are decaying military buildings and test-era villages bearing such quirky names as Banana, London, Paris and Poland.

      A major drawback to the idea of shifting the population to Kiritimati is that its freshwater supply is limited. "[Kiritimati] is seen as a land of opportunity," said Tong. "The problem is getting too many people there, and shifting the problem ... there when we are not ready for it."

     Last year, Kiribati paid $8.8 million for 2,210 hectares of rural land in Fiji. Tong said the land, mostly jungle, would be used to grow food and that i-Kiribati may eventually live there. 

     Fijian President Epeli Nailatikau said they would be welcome. "In a worst-case scenario, and if all else fails, you will not be refugees," he said.

Against the tide

Some scientists argue that it is not rising sea levels that are threatening the atolls but the people on them.

Shipping-crew candidates study at the Fisheries Training Centre in Kiribati.

     The potential for humans to damage these islets is illustrated on Funafuti, Tuvalu's capital. During World War II, U.S. Marines secretly built a runway on the atoll for launching an attack on the then-Japanese-occupied Tarawa, some 1,200km away. The soldiers dug 10 "borrow pits" to collect sand and coral rock for the project.

     Over 70 years later, the pits are disasters. Full of garbage and stagnant water, they breed diseases and take up valuable space on an islet that is just 700 meters across at its widest point. Some argue the pits also damage the vital but delicate freshwater lenses that islanders rely on.

     Not everyone thinks the atolls are in danger of disappearing. Paul Kench, a professor geomorphology at the University of Auckland, says atolls are dynamic and will grow rather than sink.

     "The islands are dynamic structures that can move and even grow in response to changing seas," said Kench. He believes the islands the i-Kiribati call home may be less vulnerable than thought.

     The journal Geology will in June publish a paper he co-authored on a 118-year analysis of the islands making up Funafuti. "This extended analysis also shows a 7% increase in island area and a significant amount of island movement," Kench said.

     Storm waves do wash over the islands, but they also deposit sand on the land. Also, reefs can grow by 10-15mm a year, faster than the sea is rising. "While some countries still cling to the 'we are drowning scenario,' it is constraining constructive work on adaptation strategies," the professor said.

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