After lifting 349 kilograms in his Olympic final in August, David Katoatau of Kiribati did something Olympic weightlifters rarely do: he danced right off the stage. His artistic performance, he explained to international news outlets, sought to draw attention to his Pacific country and the challenges it faces due to climate change. Reporters picked up on the cue, with The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman writing: “He’s competing for a nation that might not exist by the 2048 Games.”
Shocking as it may sound, there is a real threat that Katoatau’s country—even if it does not drown beneath the rising ocean—could be uninhabitable by the middle of this century.
Kiribati (pronounced “Kiribas”) is one of the world’s lowest-lying nations. Of its 33 islands, 32 are coral atolls where the average elevation is under ten feet. Though the I-Kiribati, as the country’s people are called, number just 110,000, half of them live in six square miles within the national capital of Tarawa.
With a population density similar to that of Tokyo, Tarawa—roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii—is not the bucolic idyll its location might suggest. As Kiribati’s economic hub, the city attracts opportunity-seekers of all sorts.
Traditionally, its inhabitants have obtained their drinking water from wells reaching into a thin lens of freshwater six feet underground. But creeping salinization means there is not nearly enough clean water for Tarawa’s growing population. Claire Anterea, co-founder of the Kiribati Climate Action Network, spoke about the problem in an interview with The Politic.
“People are finding saltwater in their wells. They are struggling to find good water for their children,” Anterea said. “In Tarawa, it’s overcrowded, and therefore, water is really contaminated. The scary part is that children could get sick, get diarrhea. It’s really frustrating. For us as mothers, we worry about our children.”
Tarawa does not sound like a paradise to some of its residents, including Kiribati native Ioane Teitiota. Originally from Tabiteuea Atoll, Teitiota spent years in the capital with his wife before the couple moved, in 2007, to New Zealand, where they worked as migrant laborers and had three children.
When they overstayed their visas, Teitiota’s lawyer argued that Tarawa’s poor living conditions—exacerbated by climate change—were sufficient reason for the I-Kiribati family to be granted residency in New Zealand on humanitarian grounds. Teitiota eventually lost an appeal and was deported to Tarawa with his family last year, but not before earning international recognition as the would-be “world’s first climate refugee.”
That label did not make Teitiota popular in Kiribati—some of his compatriots asserted that he insulted their national pride.
“I was really mad at him,” Anterea told The Politic. “In the first place, he didn’t do the right thing for his children. He didn’t show his paperwork so that they could stay in New Zealand. He was saying bad things about Kiribati when he did the wrong thing himself.”
Nevertheless, many I-Kiribati are acutely aware that climate change plays at least some role in the potentially life-threatening issues they face. For example, the country was once thought to be at low cyclone risk. Last year, however, flooding from Cyclone Pam wrecked the Betio Hospital, which serves twenty thousand people. Then-Minister of Health Doctor Kautu Tenaua told Conservation International: “I have never seen this kind of destruction from waves here in Kiribati.”
In an interview with The Politic, Anna Gero, Senior Research Consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures in Sydney, discussed some of the climate-related challenges facing Kiribati. “Ocean warming and acidification have huge implications, both for people who are fishing for their families and for fishing exports,” Gero noted, going on to highlight the effects of changing rainfall patterns and coastal erosion.
“Seawalls are being built, but when a storm comes, the sea is still more powerful than all of these things that are built,” Anterea said. “How long are we going to go on building seawalls?”
“It’s really a worry,” Anterea said when asked about climate change. “We’re facing it in our days. When there’s too much rain, heavy storms, the winds are stronger than our homes, stronger than what we built to protect us. Places are flooded, and people can’t cook because all the firewood [is wet].”
In 2014, the government of then-President Anote Tong bought 8.77 million dollars worth of land in Vanua Levu, Fiji. News reports at the time quoted Tong as suggesting that the whole country of Kiribati could be relocated to the plot.
Some I-Kiribati, including Anterea, believe there is a possible benefit to national resettlement. “Personally, I don’t want to move, but if we have to, I would prefer to move as a nation,” she said.
“I’ve always dreamed that we could move together, so that we could keep our own uniqueness, our culture, our language,” Anterea explained. But she also noted that her government would have to avoid the example set by the British, who relocated the people of Banaba—Kiribati’s only raised island— in 1945 in order to mine the island for phosphates.
“They moved the Banabans to Rabi, in Fiji,” Anterea said. “The people were told they would get good homes. But it was all lies. When they got to Rabi, they found out that they didn’t have homes. They had to sleep in the open air,” she continued with indignation in her voice. “That’s an experience I don’t think we want to have again. We want to have the right to live on this Earth.”
Certainly, relocating the I-Kiribati would be an desperate, last-chance bid for survival. But is it inevitable? The Platform on Disaster Displacement is a state-led, intergovernmental process which seeks to address the needs of those displaced by natural hazards ranging from earthquakes to climate change. Atle Solberg, Head of the Platform’s Coordination Unit, spoke with The Politic in an interview.
“We know that there are millions, every year, who are displaced in the context of sudden-onset natural hazards, and that others have to move because of the adverse effects of climate change,” Solberg said, acknowledging that the 110,000 I-Kiribati represent the tip of a iceberg. “Whether some or all of the people of Kiribati will have to move from their homes depends on a lot of factors.”
But he also shared a saying—a warning perhaps—common among Pacific island leaders: “If we fail to plan, we plan to fail.”
And Kiribati has quite a bit to plan for. Jane McAdam, Scientia Professor of Law at the University of New South Wales and a leading authority on climate change and displacement, noted that Kiribati could be one of the first countries to become uninhabitable, creating an unprecedented legal conundrum: Can a ‘State’ continue to exist if its citizens cannot live on their territory? Could the government of Kiribati fulfill its political functions of nationhood—conferring citizenship, electing a parliament, collecting taxes—even if its nationals lived within a different sovereign state?
International law does not provide clear answers to these questions, and the I-Kiribati are carefully considering a host of alternatives to relocation.
Tong had a number of ideas. His government worked with the World Bank on the Kiribati Adaptation Project, a multi-million dollar initiative that has helped build seawalls, reduce coastal erosion by planting mangrove trees, and collect rainwater for drinking across Kiribati.
But Tong, who issued dire warnings to global media that Kiribati might have to be abandoned within a few decades, is perhaps best known for embracing a policy that he called “migration with dignity.”
The plan, as described by Anterea, is to provide Kiribati citizens with training that they could put to use as skilled laborers abroad. To many, it sounds like an attractive alternative to any perceived indignity associated with being a “climate refugee.”
Solberg endorsed the policy as forward-thinking, safe, and orderly, but he stressed that it had to be voluntary and could only serve as one aspect of any government’s strategy to tackle the impacts of climate change. He was also frank about its potential challenges and the need to open new avenues for legal migration. For instance, New Zealand is a nearby, comparatively wealthy country where I-Kiribati could presumably resettle, but it currently accepts just 75 migrants from Kiribati every year.
Further, in Kiribati or any other country, there will always be people who will simply not want to move. Who can blame them? Anterea described her experience surveying public opinion on the possibility of migration from Kiribati.
“We were asking the community what they really wanted to do if we are forced to move out from our own country because of sea level rise,” she said. “In our talk with them they said, ‘How can we move to an unfamiliar place? We don’t know that place. How can we go fishing there?’”
Anterea continued on to summarize the national sentiment in her country. “Some people are ready to move for the sake of their children,” she said. “And some, they say, ‘If we die here, maybe that’s God’s will.’”
Yet for those I-Kiribati who want to (or have to) leave, there is very little in international law to support and protect them. In rejecting Teitiota’s petition to be granted refuge in New Zealand, Justice John Priestley cited a 1951 UN convention that specifically defines refugees as people with “legitimate fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group.” The document makes no mention of climate or even natural disasters.
Speaking about the same islanders who were initially scared to move to an unfamiliar place, Anterea recalled, “Some thought twice and said, ‘Well, if we can’t stay in our own lovely country, we have to move, but we don’t know how.’ And then they kind of worried, ‘Does any other country want to take us? We’re not sure if they are preparing to take us.’”
Still, even talk of migration and relocation angers many people in low-lying island states. Why should they have to give up their land, and possibly their culture and traditions, to escape a disaster they played almost no role in creating?
Anterea spoke about a recent visit to one of Kiribati’s outlying islands, where locals questioned why they were the ones being told about climate change and its impacts.
“The villagers told me, ‘You should go talk to the people from those big countries, those countries that contribute more, about what will happen to us,’” she said. “They asked, ‘Why are you telling this to us if it’s not our fault? It’s not us doing all the damage to our world.’”
It is easy to understand how the idea of moving people from Kiribati and other atoll states can be seen as a distraction from these countries’ real challenge—convincing industrialized nations to take responsibility for the climate crisis and cut their greenhouse gas emissions. And almost all island leaders, including Anote Tong, have been vocal advocates of global action to limit temperature increases and achieve carbon neutrality.
In this year’s elections, however, Kiribati’s voters opted for the anti-Tong opposition, who had decried the land purchase in Fiji as a “boondoggle” and thought that instead of flying off to international conferences to discuss carbon dioxide emissions, the former president should have paid more attention to pressing local issues in Kiribati such as high infant mortality rates.
The new president, Taneti Maamau, told The New York Times that while he did not doubt the real threat posed by climate change, he intended to focus more government resources on bigger problems related to health and education. Although she acknowledged the shift away from climate-focused policies, Anterea expressed confidence in her country’s current leaders.
“I believe they will do it for the sake of the people,” Anterea said. “They’re not pushing the issue of migration to somewhere else, but they are working hard to give people a good life here in Kiribati.”
But as they adapt to climate change, what will serve the I-Kiribati best is the spirit of community that has sustained their culture for three thousand years.
“Our people are resilient people,” Anterea told The Politic. “We help each other. Our people, our families have been doing that for many years and that will continue.”
The science of predicting climate change is inexact. No one can say with certainty if Kiribati will one day sink below the Pacific, or how many people the country’s resources can sustain and for how long. But what is known for sure is that, even if their seawalls crumble and their water turns brackish, the people of Kiribati will not give up easily on their islands.