Photo: Government of Kiribati
“Migrate with dignity” – that is what the Republic of Kiribati’s government recommends to its people, who live an average of two meters above the ocean. This group of 33 small islands in the center of the Pacific Ocean is experiencing increased storm surges, sea level rise, drought and other climate impacts, which are devastating their economy and way of life.
In 2003, the World Bank initiated the Kiribati Adaptation Program, a $17.7 million action plan, which has preserved some of the island’s fresh water and a small spread of beachfront. A 2014 study indicated that despite these achievements, sandbag seawalls have actually decreased the island’s climatic stability.
In theory, the islanders could build walls to the sea, plant more mangroves, build salt-water desalination plants and even create artificial islands like China is doing in the South China Sea. But Kiribati is one of the poorest countries in the world, “ranked 170th of 186 countries on per capita GDP.” The nation invests approximately 35 percent of its GDP in climate adaptation; however, it does not have the resources needed to innovate its way to resiliency through costly adaptive strategies.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. The leaders of this small island nation are encouraging the 100,000 plus citizens to prepare themselves by gaining desirable skills – the government plans to offer trainings – to make them attractive candidates for potential host nations such as Australia and New Zealand. Officials say that this will increase the education level on the island, provide safe havens for future migrants and increase remittances – a real “win-win situation.”
Not all island dwellers support this “win-win” strategy. “We are Christians,” said resident pastor, Ms. Rube, who is among those who don’t believe that climate change will render their home inhabitable. “We don’t believe that God could have given us this world and then take it away.”
Kiribati’s government has purchased 6,000 acres of land in the more mountainous islands of Fiji, where they plan to relocate some of their citizens. Kiribati is not alone; other island nations are threatened with similar fates.