Kiribati Leader Sees Rising Seas Swamping Pacific Island Nation

  • President Tong's school from childhood now submerged
  • Plans to relocate whole villages as more land disappears

The Pacific island nation of Kiribati has been beset in recent years by rising seas that have swamped the coast and previously inhabited areas. Following is an edited transcript of an interview with the country’s president, Anote Tong.

Q: Tuvalu has lost four small islands to rising seas. The Marshall Islands have lost a couple, and in Palau, some villages flood at high tide. What are you seeing in Kiribati?

A: Our story is really not any different. We have communities which have relocated. We have islands which were swamped during the last storm. The most disturbing development is that events are happening which did not happen before. The cyclone that hit our southern islands earlier this year -- we did not experience a cyclone before, and so this would be the first in our known history.

Islands at Risk from Rising Seas
Islands at Risk from Rising Seas
Source: ESRI

Q: How widespread is relocation in Kiribati?

A: We have an entire village -- we are helping them relocate now. There are quite a number which we’ve struggled to keep in place. The battle is being lost on a daily basis. We are trying to do the best we can, but ultimately it will be a fight that we will not be able to win unless we can get support from the international community. We cannot do it alone.

Q: Christiana Figueres, who’s leading the global effort to broker a new climate deal in Paris in December, has been clear that the sum of national pledges won’t cap the temperature rise at 2 degrees, let alone the 1.5 degrees that island nations want. What can you get out of the talks?

A: I’ve been at this for over a decade right now, and what I am seeing is a healthy change of attitude. Is that progress sufficient to avert future disaster? For us the answer is no. The final outcome for us is pretty much a foregone conclusion. So what’s the point in going to Paris? We must continue to make the point that if the international community does not do anything, not only will we be in trouble, but others will follow. I’m not being fatalistic. I’m being brutally realistic.

Q: Kiribati has been buying land in Fiji. Could you tell me about that?

A: We bought land so it would provide food security, and it is not my intention or my plan during my term in office to relocate people. I don’t see the possibility of everyone in Kiribati, all of our 100,000 people, relocating. We will never be in the position to generate the resources required to ensure all of the islands remain above water. So we have to accept the fact that we may only be able to do it for a few islands. At least we can be assured that the nation of Kiribati will remain on the map.

Q: What changes have you personally seen?

A: The community that I told you had relocated, I went to school on that island, and the village is no longer there. There is a church building and a meeting house, but nobody can go there because during high tide they’re sitting out in the middle of the water.

For more, read this QuickTake: Climate Change

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