When the waters are rising…

Kiribati’s former president Anote Tong faces climate change head on and sees hope, even as islands become an early warning system for the international community.

For the island nations of the South Pacific, climate change is a reality that is already causing people to migrate. The rise in sea level has made some low-lying islands uninhabitable, and in the case of Kiribati, over half the population is now crowded onto one main island, according to Anote Tong, the former president.

Millennium Atoll — Courtesy of The TerraMar Project on Flickr

Indeed, an estimated 12 million people around the world have already been displaced by climate change. In the case of Kiribati’s population of approx. 116,000, the challenge is an existential one. Within a century the country will be underwater.


“Do we go or do we stay?” asks former president Tong, a tireless campaigner for the survival of his nation. Is staying even an option? He thinks so, but getting to that position has been a long road.

In a talk at the first ever Smart Island World Congress in Mallorca last month, Tong laid out the evolution of his own thinking about the threat facing his country, from initial anger and blame to appeals to the world’s sense of moral justice to exploring migration options to ultimately seeking “smart” solutions and technological answers.

The UN Climate Change Conferences over the decades have slowly shown more unity and resolve, with the Marrakesh edition last November reaching agreement in record time. But as Tong points out, even if all the stated goals were instantly met today, Kiribati would still disappear.

In 2014, he authorized the purchase of 20 square kilometers of land on Fiji, a move that generated a political backlash at home and heated debate in Fiji. The purchase, Tong says, was as much to raise international awareness as to provide a refuge and peace of mind for his people. “Hopefully, it gives them some sense of comfort that whatever happens they do have a place,” he says.

“We would migrate with dignity”

President Anote Tong

In thinking through the migration options, he emphasizes, “We would migrate with dignity,” not as second class citizens, offering the recent wave of migration from Africa to Europe as an example of how not do it. But then he loops back to the idea at the heart of his quest: “We have to find a way to stay on our land,” because the Kiribati people have a spiritual connection to their land.

Tong’s expectation is that the international community will eventually step up to the plate, although his frustration with narrow political interests and next-election mentality is not far below the surface. He says wryly, as if addressing a reluctant politician: “If it’s about your economy. No problem. Keep your emissions within your national border then I have nothing to worry about.”

This is his chief argument: A global crisis requires a global response. You cannot introduce your national agenda into a global issue.

“I challenge countries,” he says, “if you have the capacity to do something then you have the obligation to do it.” At each talk and round table, Tong invites experts, engineers, researchers, anyone who feels they can contribute to do so.

He is convinced there are engineering solutions. Raised islands or floating islands top the list.

Dutch and Korean engineers have done studies in Kiribati. China and the Arab Emirates already have experience building islands. Tuvalu, a South Pacific neighbor, with the assistance of New Zealand, has built up land by dredging material from a lagoon — for a price tag of $11 billion.

So the question is how to pay for it? Tong believes that Kiribati’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which stretches across an area of ocean larger than India and hosts 60 percent of the world’s tuna, may hold one answer.

“Our demise, our going underwater, is manmade…. We’re talking about human beings being affected by the actions of others.”

Academics have posited that should Kiribati disappear the legal status of the EEZ could revert to common property. Tong gives an emphatic no. “Our demise, our going underwater, is manmade…. We’re talking about human beings being affected by the actions of others.” For that reason, the EEZ should remain under the jurisdiction of Kiribati.

When you live at 78ºN you become an expert in everything

That rich fishing ground could be one source of funding for Kiribati’s future, Tong says. In order to survive the next 100 years the islands will need to be 2 or 3 meters higher. But he’s not thinking about saving all 33, that would be prohibitive. Indeed, climate-related migration has already concentrated more than half of the population on the main island and simplified the challenge.

“While we have everyone on one island we don’t have to build schools on every island, duplicate a lot of services and government structure,” Tong says, choosing to see the “blessing,” as he puts it, in a dire situation.

It’s also the beginning of what he calls “a new society.” “Each island has different ways of doing things, so culturally it’s going to be a new society. We have to learn to live together peacefully as one family.”

Kiribati is part of Pacific Rising, a coalition of low-lying atoll nations most threatened by rising waters. They define themselves as the “early warning system for the international community” and have raised a new dimension of human rights: the right to survive.

“Will we be able to keep living our lives the way we want?” Tong asks. “The answer is not very clear.”

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