Thanks to Rising Seas, Kiribati Looks for New Homeland
There is a growing list of small island leaders fervently scanning the horizon of the flat—and rising—seas that surround them, looking desperately for new homes.
The list has included the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, the Maldives and Seychelles. And this week the leader of equator-straddling Kiribati officially let it be known that he is also on the hunt for a new place to settle as lapping waves and eroding beaches become increasingly part of his island nation’s daily worry.
Even if the best-case scenario were to come true and all greenhouse gas emissions were braked tomorrow, ocean levels around the world would still rise three to six feet by 2100. This will make life untenable on islands from Polynesia to Manhattan and particularly Kiribati, which climbs no higher than six feet.
The government in Kiribati has already experimented with building sea walls and has even considered construction of floating “homes,” like something straight out of Waterworld. Some of Kiribati’s residents have already moved inland or to one of its other 32 islands, since fresh water resources are contaminated by salt water and growing fields are flooded.
Making plans for his 103,000 citizens to higher grounds was not a backup plan, Kiribati President Anote Tong said, but “our last resort.” Tong has his eyes on purchasing a piece of Fiji, specifically nine-square miles on its second largest island, Vanua Levu. He announced to his cabinet this week that he intends to buy the 6,000 acres of fertile land, currently listed by a church group, for $9.6 million.
“Making plans for his 103,000 citizens to higher grounds was not a backup plan, [the president] said, but ‘our last resort.’ ”
Not only is the President putting together a war chest for purchasing property, starting with foreign reserves built up during the island’s 1970s phosphate-mining boom days, but he will also eventually call on the international community to kick in. In addition, he has a rudimentary migration plan, which involves initially sending 500 of Kiribati’s most skilled workers to Fiji to “carve out a niche” so that when mass migration begins later in the century, Kiribatians will have a foothold and not be regarded as environmental refugees.
To avoid being considered second-class citizens, President Tong has also launched an “Education for Migration” program, aimed at increasing the employability of his people. In addition, President Tong is looking at Australia and New Zealand as potential new homelands for some of his people.
The president made it clear that any move from his homeland would not be made for him and his generation, but for the youth of Kiribati. “Moving won’t be a matter of choice for them,” he told the Associated Press, “it’s basically going to be a matter of survival.”
Fiji-based realtors have actually been engaged in the negotiation between the Kiribati government and private landholders. Making the land arable so that new settlers can grow vegetables and fruit is a top priority; so is taking sand and dirt from Fiji by barge back to Kiribati to help stem rising sea levels.
Fiji sits about 1,400 miles south of Kiribati; adding additional people to its 850,000 would obviously cause some stress. Historically its high islands (Fiji is made up 106 islands, with peaks rising as high as 4,000 feet) have been regarded as safe havens by low-lying neighbors that are running out of resources.
For the moment, the Fijian government is said to be “studying” Kiribati’s plans and will have a formal statement next week.
But the reality is that the globe will witness a future where nations build and die with the rising tides as more and more citizens of low-lying countries bcome environmental refugees.