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Kiribati: climate change ground zero?

Is Kiribati ‘ground zero’ for  climate change? 

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After recently visiting Kiribati, a small island in the Pacific, I think it probably is!

I was in the region on a project for SPREP (and UNDP, UNESCO, WMO, SPC), to assess water, climate and hydrological services capacity across 21 countries.  Had some in depth discussions with many countries, but more importantly saw first-hand the nature of water issues and climate change in these small countries. 

I’ve only dipped my toe in the waters here with a short visit, but Kiribati is an equally inspiring and devastating country. Kiribati is picture postcard perfect in many ways. 

But its beauty hides the catastrophic threat climate change poses to these people. It’s a story of what a place looks like when water, energy, food, climate, infrastructure and the people struggle to coexist, and how risky that situation is in this island.

Kiribati is made up of 33 atolls in the Pacific, and is virtually on the equator.  The two largest island atolls (5000 km apart) house most of the people.  South Tarawa, where I visited, is a series of islands connected by one road.  They have 52,000 people living here, some in pretty awful conditions and housing. They are forecasting they could have 100,000 living here within 20 years, as people from the outer island migrate into the ‘urban centre’.  The other is Kiritimati, which is almost closer to South America than Australia, but I wasn’t able to visit that one in my short travels.

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So why is it ground zero?

The first issue is about land and space.  As some of the photos show – Tarawa where I visited is a slither of an island – sometimes connected by just a sand spit and the main two lane road.  The highest place is 3 metres above sea level. 

I think I saw only two soccer pitches.  There literally isn’t space (or width), to fit a field. I worked out the island is probably as dense (population wise) as Hong Kong.  But without a single high rise. 

This island and country is living in a vice. The water is closing in on them from six sides.  From above the climate becomes more variable, more storms, cyclones, more droughts.  From the sides it is coming up the beach and over the sea walls.  But the worst is from below, and the impact on the groundwater.  Their main source of water is groundwater.  When it rains the water infiltrates very quickly and sits in the subsurface of the island, as what we call a groundwater lens.  Like a pocket of freshwater under the surface.  But as the sea rises, this pocket of available freshwater (that can run out in a drought, and is at huge risk of being contaminated by pollution from the people themselves), gets squeezed – or more to the point becomes slightly saltier. 

Now they have a water supply system, but it leaks and is mostly PVC and gets cracked or people just cut into it.  People don’t pay for water, so don’t really have any financial drive to save water.  And because it leaks, it is very expensive to build new water sources, knowing that it will just leak out again.  They are building a desalination plant. But these plants use lots of energy (and energy comes from importing petrol and diesel), to create water, that will flow down pipes and leak. To be fair they are including a big solar farm to offset the energy required for this plant, but I think they will struggle to find enough space to offset all of that energy demand.

Without metering and billing, it is hard to estimate how much the water is leaking.  I.e. is 20% leaking? Is 50%? 

Because it leaks so much, and there is a limited amount in the groundwater, each house gets 2 hours of water every 2 days.  2 out of 48 hours you have running water.  That pretty much rules out any teenagers and their long showers moving to Kiribati.  While your 2 hours is on, people stockpile water.  Containers everywhere.  For washing, cooking, etc etc.  Rainwater tanks are common, but I think mostly as part of larger building works.  Probably too expensive for the ones that need it most.

And sewage.  Well half of main capital and the island have a sewage system. The other half don’t.  They literally go to the toilet on the beach. And fishing is their main source of food. 

Sewage isn’t treated, but pumped out to the edge of the reef, using a saltwater system.  On a windy day and with the wrong tide it would flow back into the beach.  Not filtered at all.  Now they have built a longer outfall, so it isn’t coming back to the beach anymore.  What it does to the nearby marine life and local fish population no yet knows.  Now admittedly most coastal cities do this (e.g. Sydney).  But they filter the sewage first and send it a long way offshore.

Water is connected to several other problems.  Growing food (there is very limited space and no topsoil, as well as risk of salt water intrusion).  Importing food (when I was there it had been 8 weeks since any fresh food was imported – supermarkets look like warehouses – no fresh stuff just tinned, packaged and bottled). And then there is the waste from imported food. Tourism also is connected to these issues.  A lack of infrastructure making to very difficult to increase tourism.  (the main tourism website states “You won't see any fluffy towels and swim-up bars here”).

One day I ventured to North Tarawa.  Got a little boat across the water.  Had lunch and then wanted to go for a swim on the ocean side (where it is just subject to ocean currents, not sewage).  Wondered through a village or two.  Spoke to some boys who showed me the way to the water.  Good little kids. Oldest one was called ‘Oleario’. Thought it was very amusing to see me just walking around (most people are on tours).  Walked back with them and then as I said good bye I saw their local two water wells.  Just horrible.  These guys live in what are referred to as the outer islands.  No running water at all and no sewage.  That well is how they clean and drink and cook every day.  And it will get saltier over time.   But the kids knew about tides and overtopping of the sea water. 

Climate change is forecast raise sea levels by up to 98 cm.  The oceans will be warmer, with more cyclones, the summers hotter, the droughts longer, the floods worse.  It is a wicked trajectory.   And Oleario and his brothers literally can’t live in that village.

Sea walls help (just last weekend they had a king tide that saw many people sand bagging the island), to a point, but don’t insulate you from these issues, especially groundwater problems.

But I said it was inspiring too.  Well to see people live, laugh, and just get on with life is inspiring.  And to also seem them turn up at international meetings and describe the impact of climate change in their country, is also inspiring.

So in the spirit of helping these guys, and to reduce the severity of climate change, I think it is worth doing everything you can.  Reduce emissions, buy or generate clean energy, create less waste, eat less meat, don’t fly or offset your flights.  Every bit counts.   

Hope to post a blog on the SPREP project in a month or so.