Rising tides threaten the island nation of Kiribati

Rising tides threaten the island nation of Kiribati

Ben Namakin grew up in Kiribati, a low-lying island chain in the Pacific Ocean. He experienced first-hand the impacts of rising sea levels caused by climate change. It spurred him on to become an environmental educator, teaching students and community members about important environmental challenges like global warming.

Kiribati lies just 2 meters above sea level. As the sea level rises due to climate change, the islanders have suffered coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion and a massive loss of infrastructure. Some villages have already disappeared beneath the waves. Fearing the worst, many islanders have migrated to South Tawara, an overpopulated ring of islands which is heavily fortified with flood defences.

Ben explains how the rising waters have transformed into a significant threat during his lifetime. ‘During my childhood days in Kiribati, we never experienced severe sea flooding. There were storms, but they weren’t that bad. As the sea levels continued to rise in Kiribati, several king tides hit the island.’

Coastal flooding hits food and water supplies and is undermining important cultural practices. ‘Saltwater intrusion affects the quality of water in wells, floods taro patches, gardens, and puts stress on plants and trees which are very important to the life and culture of an I-Kiribati,’ explains Ben. ‘For example, pandanus trees mean a lot to us; they are used for house construction, local medicine, food, and traditional clothing, but they are dying from saltwater intrusion.’

The rising tides make the islands of Kiribati more vulnerable to big storms that can damage important infrastructure. For example, in 2006 a massive storm surge eroded massive sections of coastline, destroying roads, building and even graveyards. It caused the Dai Nippon causeway, a vital transport route and source of pride for many locals, to collapse.

‘This incident bore huge costs on the people of Kiribati,’ says Ben. ‘They had to build new homes with their own finance, and dig up their deceased relatives from their graves and bury them further inland.’

The loss of land to the sea and increased threat of coastal flooding due to climate change is a direct threat to the survival of the nation. ‘The outer island communities have been affected, we have a village which has gone, we have a number of communities where the sea water has broken through into the freshwater pond and is now affecting the food crops. That is happening on different islands, it’s not an isolated event, serious inundation is being witnessed,’ says Anote Tong, the President of Kiribati.

As rising seas and storms continue to threaten his homeland, Ben actively works to broaden the movement of people calling for urgent climate action. He has delivered a speech to delegates at the United Nations international climate talks and toured the USA to drum up interest in tackling climate change amongst students there.

But despite the efforts of Ben and many others, scientists believe that the geography of many Pacific Island countries will be radically different at the end of the 21st century compared to today. With the current rate of sea level rise many predict that 32 islands in Kiribati could be lost to the sea in the next 50 years.

Source: WWF Full account and scientific review here

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