PACIFIC ISLAND NATION OF KIRIBATI FORCED BY CLIMATE CHANGE TO MOVE TO FIJI

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26 july 2018

The sinking state
This is what happens when climate change forces an entire country to seek higher ground


By Joshua Keating, The Washington Post, July 26, 2018

The central Pacific nation of Kiribati has a few claims to fame. Its flag-bearer at the past two summer Olympics won international attention and became a meme because of his memorable dancing. The country — known under British colonial rule as the Gilbert Islands (the name Kiribati, pronounced KI-ri-bahss, is a local transliteration of “Gilberts”) — has 33 islands spread over more than 1.3 million square miles, making it one of the world’s largest nations in terms of sea area, though one of the smallest in terms of land. But what it gets the most attention for these days is its impending doom: The nation may be one of the first in line to be wiped out by the effects of climate change.

In the century to come, we’re likely to see dramatic alterations to the physical shape of the world as we know it, thanks to rising sea levels and other environmental changes. But the immediate challenges faced by most countries pale in comparison to those of Kiribati, which has an average elevation of less than six feet. The atoll of Tarawa, where nearly half the country’s 110,000 residents live, could soon be substantially underwater. “By 2050, 18-80% of the land in Buariki, North Tarawa, and up to 50% of the land in Bikenibeu, South Tarawa could become inundated,” the government told the United Nations in 2015. Kiribati’s smaller outlying islands could be wiped out even sooner. “The results of sea level rise and increasing storm surge threaten the very existence and livelihoods of large segments of the population,” officials wrote.

Small island states like Kiribati and the Maldives have become symbols of the potential impacts of global warming. At the 2015 Paris climate summit, they pressured larger countries to accept the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, rather than two degrees, over preindustrial levels. (It was mostly a symbolic victory: Barring unforeseen circumstances, particularly since the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the accord, both targets will be exceeded.) They are also working to develop first-line defenses against the effects of sea-level rise, including planting mangroves to prevent coastal erosion and improving rainwater-collection systems to protect water quality.

But if none of that works, they may have to consider more drastic options. And so, in 2014, Kiribati purchased about eight square miles on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu for a little less than $9 million, potentially for the purpose of moving its population there one day. “We would hope not to put everyone on one piece of land,” the country’s then-president, Anote Tong, said. “But if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it.” Fiji would become the new home of the nation’s inhabitants, known as the I-Kiribati.

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