In the next 30 years, experts predict much of Kiribati will be underwater. To escape the rising sea level, the nation has purchased part of another island with a higher elevation. This is the first time a country has bought land in response to climate change, though not the first time islanders in the region have been forced to relocate.
Earlier this year, the government of Fiji was forced to move residents from the village of Vunidogoloa after rising tides flooded farmlands and homes. Under the country’s “climate change refugee” program, villagers were moved into 30 new houses. The construction of the houses, as well as new farms and fish ponds, cost the government $879,000.
In late May, Kiribati purchased eight square miles of the Fijian island of Vanua Levu for $8.77 million. The island is located 1,200 miles from Kiribati and is mostly covered in forest. Until Kiribati begins relocating its people, the land will be used for agriculture and fish farming. This is because the rising sea level has already caused Kiribati’s groundwater to be contaminated with salt water.
As with Tuvalu, the Maldives and parts of Fiji itself, Kiribati is extremely vulnerable to climate change. The 100,000 inhabitants of this island nation are spread across 33 low-lying coral atolls. In some areas, the sea level rises about half an inch per year, which is four times the global average. Many atolls sit just a few feet above sea level, and experts predict that most of the nation will be submerged in the next three decades. That’s why the government of Kiribati is preparing Vanua Levu for its imminent immigration.
Kiribati President Anote Tong told the Associated Press, “We would hope not to put everyone on [this] one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it.”
The United Nations’ IPCC report estimates that climate change could cause sea levels to rise three feet within the century, leading to waves of “climate refugees.”
New Zealand is all too aware of this. In 2007, it set a precedent by denying a Kiribati farmer and his family refugee status. The man, Ioane Teitota, claimed that his family were victims of climate change after the rising sea had destroyed his livelihood. New Zealand denied the argument, stating that were it to accept Teitota, it would open up the country to millions of climate refugees in the coming years.