Sunday, 8 June 2008

Kiribati is dying

Excerpted from the Independent (UK ) 6 June 2008 "Paradise lost: climate change forces South Sea islanders to seek sanctuary abroad," by travelling correspondent Kathy Marks. See full text. Photo: Alamy

After years of fruitless appeals for decisive action on climate change, the tiny South Pacific nation of Kiribati (known as the Gilbert Islands when it was a British colony) has concluded that it is doomed. Yesterday its President, Anote Tong, used World Environment Day to request international help to evacuate his country before it disappears. Its highest land is barely 6 feet above sea level. Water supplies are being contaminated by the encroaching salt water, Mr Tong said, and crops destroyed. "Things are happening we did not experience in the past...Every second week, when we get the high tides, there's always reports of erosion." Villages that had occupied the same spot for up to a century had had to be relocated.

Speaking in New Zealand, Mr Tong said his people, the i-Kiribati, have no option but to leave. ..."We may be at the point of no return... We don't want to believe this, and our people don't want to believe this. It gives us a deep sense of frustration....It's not an issue of economic growth, it's an issue of human survival." Like other low-lying Pacific island nations such as Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and Vanuatu, the 33 tiny atolls of Kiribati are regarded as one of the places most vulnerable to climate change... [predicted to become] uninhabitable within 50 to 60 years. "I've appealed to the international community that we need to address this challenge. It's a challenge for the whole global community."

New Zealand already has a substantial population of Pacific Islanders, but absorbing another 97,000 would strain its generosity. Besides, that is just Kiribati. A report by Australian government scientists in 2006 warned of a flood of environmental refugees across the Asia-Pacific region. New Zealand is already experiencing significantly increased levels of migration from affected countries.

The G8 industrialised nations pledged last month to cut their carbon emissions by half by 2050. But they stopped short of setting firm targets for 2020, which many scientists argue is crucial if the planet is to be saved. For Kiribati, it may already be too late.

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