An Island Nation Turns Away from Climate Migration, Despite Rising Seas

The people of Kiribati face a choice: Move to land in another country or try to build resilience off the coconut trade — for as long as their islands are livable.

AMBO, Kiribati—Taneti Maamau, president of the Republic of Kiribati, leans forward from his office desk at Parliament, clasps his hands, and grins. "We try to isolate ourselves from the belief that Kiribati will be drowned," he says. "The ultimate decision is God's."

As early as 2050, it is estimated that climate change will render Kiribati, a string of 33 coral atolls that necklace the central Pacific, unlivable. And when it does, the i-Kiribatithe name that Kiribati's indigenous residents give themselves—will have to move.

But when and how Kiribati migrates hangs on domestic politics splintered by questions of how best to run an island nation short on time, space and cash.

Maamau's predecessor, Anote Tong, was a leading voice for small island states threatened by climate change, and he drew international financial aid to Kiribati as one of the first communities visibly impacted by rising seas. In 2014, he purchased 6,000 acres of land in Fiji for Kiribati's permanent resettlement. It was to be a model of planned retreat in the face of climate change.

But Maamau now plans for his people to stay. He doesn't deny that climate change is happening, but he subscribes to a belief, common here, that only divine will could unmake the islands. "We are telling the world that climate change impacts Kiribati, it's really happening," he says. "But we are not telling people to leave."

Kiribati President Taneti Maamau. Credit: Rick Bajornas/UN

Kiribati President Taneti Maamau. Credit: Rick Bajornas/UN

Maamau argues that if quality of life increases in Kiribati, the islands' capacity to prepare for the myriad costs of climate change will increase with it.

His plan envisions more money coming to the islands from international aid, access to fisheries and increasing tourism, and he's focused on expanding the coconut trade to boost income for his people. But here, too, climate change is already intervening.

'We Will Go Down' 

There is little question that climate change will spell disaster for the low-lying nation. More than 80 percent of Kiribati's scant land surface would be unsuitable for habitation if sea levels rises 2.6 feet or more, a 2001 IPCC report predicted. Already coral die-off, drought and a diminished fishing stock have eroded longstanding traditional practices and indigenous knowledge.

"Whether we like it or not, we are the test case," Tong says. "We will go down."

Tong's land purchase in Fiji was one piece of an ambitious plan for "migration with dignity." Matched with vocational training to encourage work abroad, his efforts were among the first in the world to begin planning for sea level rise and managed resettlement.

Former Kiribati President Anote Tong speaks in Sydney, Australia, about the risks his islands face from climate change. Credit: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Former Kiribati President Anote Tong speaks in Sydney, Australia, about the risks his islands face from climate change. Credit: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

The country's land in Fiji is being used as farmland for now, though, and Kiribati faces an uncertain future.

No full-scale relocation of Kiribati's population is currently on the table, notes Jane McAdam, a law professor at University of New South Wales in Australia. And no political appetite exists to create pathways for mass migration between countries. "That is why a combination—climate change adaptation strategies, disaster risk reduction measures, internal migration, temporary international migration, permanent international migration, and the creation of humanitarian visas—is vital," she says.

Locator for Kiribati

At the UN climate talks last week, Maamau presented a video describing his Kiribati Vision for 20 Years. He talks about investing in tourism and fisheries, and the video describes enticing private high-end resorts to the low-lying remote outer islands, and a plan to raise land in a section of Tarawa, the main island, for new homes.

"We can't do it alone," Maamau says in the video. "We need the cooperation and the help of our developing partners."

Meanwhile, the video also shows why migration might become necessary: the erosion Kiribati is facing from the encroaching ocean, its increasing need for desalination equipment to provide drinking water, and the use of sandbag walls to try to keep tides at bay.

Building Resilience for What Little Time Is Left 

Since his electoral win in 2016, Maamau's government has pushed policies focused on Kiribati's social woes.

And there are many social vulnerabilities: paltry sanitation, unemployment, and escalating costs of living on South Tarawa, the country's rapidly urbanizing administrative hub, to name a few. There, half of Kiribati's population of 114,000 cram along a spit of land hardly wider than the length of a soccer field. Despite brackish water and disease, i-Kiribati from other islands flock to South Tarawa for work, school, and the perceived ease of a more Western lifestyle.

Maamau sees an expansion of the islands' coconut trade and manufacturing as one way to stop the migration to South Tarawa and help the population pull itself out of poverty.  

The president of Kiribati sees the coconut trade a way to help his people escape poverty, but that won't protect from the rising seas. Credit: Lorrie Graham/AusAID

The president of Kiribati sees the coconut trade a way to help his people escape poverty, but that won't protect them from the rising seas. Credit: Lorrie Graham/AusAID

Kiribati has long provided a healthy government subsidy for copra, the chopped and dried flesh of the coconut used in oils, creams and pig feed. The subsidy transfers cash right to the hands of Kiribati's residents: anyone can split open a coconut, lay out its meat to steam in the equatorial sun, and sell the hardened shards to the state for a guaranteed price. So lucrative is the subsidy that it serves as a "de facto social protection program" on Kiribati's isolate outer islands, where steady employment is scarce.

People living in Kiribati rely on freshwater wells, which can become contaminated by saltwater. Credit: Lorrie Graham/Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

People living in Kiribati rely on freshwater wells, which can become contaminated by saltwater. Credit: Lorrie Graham/Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Tong had set the subsidy to $1 per kilo of copra. Maamau, once in office, doubled it.

Maamau says a doubled copra subsidy will line the pockets of those who need it most and spur migration back to Kiribati's outer islands, where coconuts are plenty. If Tarawa's population were to drop, its social vulnerabilities, like disease and informal housing, could be improved, he says.

McAdam agrees that the effort could help alleviate pressure on Tarawa. Migration between islands "not only provide financial support to those who move, but also to family members who stay behind," she says. With a smaller population, people might be able to stay in Tarawa longer than would otherwise be possible, given resource constraints.

But remedying Tarawa's social vulnerabilities this way won't ease exposure to climate shocks. In fact, as hundreds of people return to cut copra on outer islands torched by drought, Maamau's subsidy throws more i-Kiribati to the frontlines of climate change.

Coconuts on the Front Lines

On Abaiang, the next island to the north of Tarawa, Maamau's cash-for coconuts scheme hasn't played out as planned. The coconuts are succumbing to climate change.

Isolated, scarcely populated, and lush with greenery, Abaiang couldn't be more different from Tarawa's crowds and dust.

"On the outer island, there is no company, no private sector," says Maaruan Itakei, former mayor of Abaiang. The copra subsidy, he says, is often the sole means to pay for schooling and for goods like rice, sugar and medicine. Most other goods on Abaiang, where families eke out a subsistence lifestyle, come cash-free.

"The coconut tree is very important for us," Itakei explains. "There is no tree, no money."

Drought and sea level rise have started damaging the coconut crop people rely for the coconut trade. Credit: Jodie Garfield/AusAID

Drought and sea level rise are already damaging the coconuts that people rely on for income. Credit: Jodie Garfield/AusAID

Human settlement on Abaiang is possible only because of an underground freshwater lens that is susceptible to contamination. Times of drought turn fresh groundwater too salty to drink. Times of flooding do the same. Soil quality is poor, stubbing out any chance for flourishing agriculture. And as on Tarawa, most groundwater is undrinkable as is: animal detritus, debris and e.coli often infect open wells.

Abaiang's villagers say it's getting worse. In a 2016 study released by the government of Kiribati, every single village in Abaiang reported drastic shifts in the prevalence, timing and force of extreme climate events. Across three decades, rainfall decreased and drought and saltwater intrusion—the result of extreme high tides—flared up with greater frequency.

Abaiang's trees now produce smaller coconuts, and less of them. The same 2016 study found that heightened drought and tidal flooding had warped the size and shape of coconuts themselves.

Change has not gone unnoticed. "The trees never grow; they're very brown," says Itakei, gesturing toward the frames of trees curving above his home. "Our coconut trees have become too small. It's very difficult to get copra. Our coconuts are getting too small."

Fewer coconuts, shrunken in size, hits Abaiang's pocketbooks. Less copra means less cash to go around. And paired with the enormous spike in demand churned up by Maamau's subsidy, diminished supply has coaxed ferocious competition for coconuts—so much so that Abaiang's copra cutters even fell green, unripe crop.  

On Abaiang, coconuts are succumbing to the effects of climate change. Credit: AusAID

On Abaiang, coconuts are succumbing to the effects of climate change and homes have been moved further inland to escape erosion. Credit: AusAID

For these grinding alterations, Itakei blames drought. "We believe that if you are now in Abaiang, it's changed. No more rain. Empty water tanks still empty." Now, he says, he and his family draw their water from a well contaminated by salt.

The price of the subsidy might also undo Maamau's ambitions. It accounts for 14 percent of Kiribati's expected annual expenditure. Paul Tekenane, CEO of Kiribati Copra Mill Ltd., estimates that the country buys copra from its citizens at twice the price copra receives on the world market.

When the Tide Rises, No Means of Escape

In South Tarawa, meanwhile, Bibari Binaatak has seen early warnings of the risks ahead. She remembers being caught unaware when the sea flopped to land one afternoon in 2014. Binaatak had been chatting with a neighbor when she noticed fast-moving waters foaming on shore. Hoping to beat the rush of detritus she jogged back to her home, flood water swirling at her ankles.

It was too late. Floodwaters as high as 2 feet smashed through a loose fence jumbled together with sheets of corrugated tin siding. The water stayed for hours. With no high ground, and with no evident means of escape, Bibari did what she could. She grabbed whatever valuables were in reach, took a seat on her buia—a platform elevated above the ground that's often used like a porch—and waited for the floods to fall.

High tides and storm surges can inundate the islands of Kiribati, as waves from Cyclone Pam did in 2015, even though the cyclone was far from the islands. Credit: Plan International Australia via Getty Images

High tides and storm surges can inundate the islands of Kiribati, as waves from Cyclone Pam did in 2015. Credit: Plan International Australia via Getty Images

Binaatak's home is in Betio, a warren of informal housing, factories, and military leftovers abandoned after World War II. She lives in a shack of scrap and tin, near shoreline blooms of garbage and the hulks of rusted ships. She depends on remittances sent from her grandson, who works on a fishing ship—though she was once employed as a typist by Kiribati's government before retiring.

"It's a big worry, how you will survive, what you will do to prepare yourself and your family," she says. "Maybe we will prepare a boat."

No Easy Solution for Vulnerable Islands

For a small island nation marooned in the Pacific, battered by drought, and confronted with the possibility of its eminent unmaking, there exists no easy solution.

To swap one island's vulnerabilities for those of another might work temporarily. But even a move to other island nations—like Fiji—won't free Kiribati from the risks of climate change. Fiji has also relocated communities because of coastal flooding, and much of its main island, Viti Levu, was severely damaged by a tropical cyclone in 2015.

Kiribati's jumbled push to balance climate shocks and social harms fires off a warning for other countries that will soon have to do the same.

"On something like this," Tong says, "we've got to be brutally realist. We have no choice. We've got to be very harsh—realistically harsh."

Much depends on it.

Top photo: The new president of Kiribati sees the coconut trade as a way to solve some of his islands' overcrowding problems, but climate change is already affecting the trees — and the islands themselves. Credit: Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

Ben Walker is a 2016-17 Thomas J. Watson Fellow who has been reporting on climate change and mass displacement in locations around the world.

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