Future uncertain for Pacific Islands like Kiribati

10 Dec 2009

Boobu Tioram stood on the beach and gestured toward a point about 20 metres into the sea and explained that his first house once stood on a spot now covered in swelling ocean waves. Tioram, a resident of the Pacific island of Kiribati, has been forced to move three times in the past decade as the shore line has steadily receded before the rising tide.

“I’m not sure how long I’ll be [in my current house],” Tioram said about his newest home, protected from the encroaching ocean by a simple sea wall that he continues to reinforce. “That depends on how strong my seawall here can withstand high tide waves.”

Tioram is one of the millions of people living on low lying islands and coastal areas who are already losing out in the battle against the effects of climate change. The poorest countries stand to lose the most, and are already losing out, as the effects of climate change edge toward the catastrophic.

Kiribati is no more than four metres high at its highest point, and 100 percent of the population lives within one kilometre of the coast, making this nation one of the most vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Its future is uncertain, including the question of whether it even has a future anymore.

“The scientific research shows that by 2100 it’s almost certain that we’ll have more than a metre of sea level rise,” said Karen Bernard, a UNDP programme specialist in natural disaster reduction and transition. “On a flat island like Kiribati that amount of sea level rise comes very far inland.”

As climate negotiations open in Copenhagen, worlds away from this tiny Pacific nation consisting of 33 low lying atolls, it is important to keep in mind that for the people of Kiribati, and other poor island and coastal nations, funds for adaptation and not only prevention must top the international to-do list.

“Carbon trading will be of no special consequence to us,” said Kiribati President Anote Tong, referring to an international initiative to control the emission of greenhouse gasses using economic incentives. “So there has got to be some very special provisions for the victims. Not the potential victims, but the victims, because we are the victims, so there has to be some very deep soul searching.”

“It’s a very serious situation,” Bernard said. “For that reason, the Government is looking for options for relocating the population.”