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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Sinking Nation of Kiribati

Air Date: Week of

LOE’s Executive Producer Steve Curwood interviews Kiribati’s President Anote Tong at the Cancun climate change conference. (2010) (Photo: Jennifer Stevens)

The island nation of Kiribati could soon disappear beneath the sea. Rising sea levels caused by climate change are already enveloping the country’s small territory, pushing the Kiribati government to look for a new home. Kiribati President Anote Tong tells host Bruce Gellerman about a plan to move 100,000 people to manmade islands.


GELLERMAN: Kiribati is a collection of 32 atolls and a coral island, home to 100 thousand people spread over more than a million square miles of Pacific Ocean. The low-lying land is covered with palm trees, and surrounded by pristine reefs. It’s a picture post card of paradise, but soon it’ll be paradise lost.

Global warming is melting the ice caps, raising the level of the seas, sinking Kiribati under the waves. I Kiribati, who have called the islands home for three thousand years, are already looking into places to relocate, and one of those places doesn’t even exist yet - as President Anote Tong explained to me on a scratchy phone line from Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati.

TONG: Yeah, you're talking about the concept of floating islands?


TONG: The idea is that just like a drilling rig, but I think we must be in the position to offer the option, the choices to our people.

GELLERMAN: You’re actually thinking that it might be possible to actually create oil rigs, basically, that are large enough to serve as a homeland for your people?

TONG: Well, can you give me any other choices if our islands are going to be underwater? I mean, the only other option is to relocate, and that’s not very attractive I think. It would be so unfortunate if one day there would be no nation of Kiribati. Any marginal rise in sea level is quite catastrophic for us.

What we are seeing is the intrusion of saltwater into the freshwater ponds where people cultivate their food crops. We’re struggling with building sea walls, but they’re breaching that. And so, the food crop production is being affected, it's affecting the livelihoods of people and the frequency of communities being displaced is increasing.

About half the I-Kiribati people live on the island of Tarawa (Photo: NASA)

GELLERMAN: When I heard about this, I started looking around to see if anybody had done anything like this, and it turns out that the idea might not be so far-fetched. There was a tribe in Peru that built 40 grass islands in the middle of Lake Titicaca.

TONG: Mhmm. Well, building islands is an option that we would consider, first of all - that would be our first choice. To build up the islands that we have, but we understand it's going to be extremely, extremely expensive exercise. As you well understand, our islands don't have a shelf - a continental shelf - so there is no material that we can dredge up to build up the islands.

GELLERMAN: So, basically building up your islands with material that you would have to import?

TONG: That’s basically it, because if we are to use material that are already on top of the seamounds where we are, we’re going to be able to build up only small areas, because we don’t have enough material. So, it would be possible, but it’s not a viable solution. It has to be done in a different manner.

GELLERMAN: It really begs the question of how do you save, not just the people, but the cultural identity, if you have to evacuate a homeland that you've occupied for three thousand years?

TONG: I think that question is really an unprecedented question, and the question that we probably, and together with other countries, have to face. I think we would be able to better maintain our culture if the population could remain intact, in some form, in somewhere, with a distinct culture, some semblance of sovereignty.

It’s a very interesting intellectual exercise, but unfortunately, it is something that we have to deal with on a practical level at some point in time in the future. And the problem is of such a magnitude that we are considering even the most unlikely possibility.

I think the international community has to see the desperate situation that we have to face. And really, because it’s not a consequence of our doing, but a result of events, which have taken place over the decades in other parts of the world.

GELLERMAN: How much do you think it will cost to save your nation?

TONG: Oh, I think it’s going to cost billions of dollars. The question is finding the right engineering solution. But I think the point that I’m trying to make in discussing issues like floating islands is that - if you can come up with a better engineering solution, please, come forward and advise us.

GELLERMAN: Well, President Tong, I want to wish you and the people of Kiribati, the best of luck.

TONG: Thank you very much – bye.

GELLERMAN: President Anote Tong spoke to us from Tarawa, the capital city of Kiribati. Well, so far the urgent message from President Tong and other leaders from small Pacific island nations has largely gone unheeded - lots of talk about help from the world community, but little action on climate change.



Kiribati considers 'floating islands' to combat sea


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