‘I-Kiribati want to migrate with dignity’

Kiribati media producer and climate change advocate Linda Uan’s enlightening opinion piece is receiving international attention, most recently featuring in the Sydney Morning Herald. Read the full article, below…

On an average day we can look out across our lagoons – everything is calm and peaceful, people are fishing and going about their daily business – everything is at it should be and has been for many generations.

But this is very deceptive.  We now know that we are being subjected to a gradual, creeping & insidious process which directly threatens our future and our ability to live in our homeland – our people will be scattered, and the survival of our unique culture, lifestyle and even our language, may be lost forever.

Our awareness of climate change & sealevel rise is relatively new and it was only in the late 90s that our communities started hearing about it. Our people were confused as to how our small, low lying islands in the central Pacific can be affected by the activities of others in the distant developed world.

Media producer and climate change advocate Linda Uan.

Media producer and climate change advocate Linda Uan.

In our traditional village culture, we all understand that if somebody does a wrong, they have to reciprocate for their unacceptable behaviour towards an individual or the community as a whole. We are therefore left puzzled and challenged by the fact that the continued abuse of the environment by wealthy nations means we are the ones who have to suffer.  Our sense of fair play, of right and wrong, and of justice is being severely tested.

In looking at his community’s flooded mwaneaba – meeting house – the Rev. Eria Maere  observes, “Others are reaping the benefits of all these gases and things, but we are paying the price.  It’s too difficult – our kids are worried – where will they be in 10-15 years time?  There is no love for the people of the islands.”

Back in 1999, we assumed that we would all be climbing coconut trees to escape the rising tides which would innundate our tiny islands – but we now know it is not as simple as that.

On average our islands are only 2 or 3 metres above sealevel, and are often less than 800 metres across at the widest point.   Early advice was that we should move away from the coast, but as President Anote Tong has noted, “There is nowhere to move back to – you’ll either be in the lagoon or the ocean.”

What we now experience are more frequent storms which attack our coastal defences, and erode our precious land and crops – whole communities have had to be re-located.   Changing climate patterns have also brought extensive periods of drought, which threaten our vulnerable & scarce fresh water supply.

Rev. Eria Mwaerere and his community's mwaneaba, which is monthly threatened by rising tides.

Rev. Eria Mwaerere and his community’s mwaneaba, which is monthly threatened by rising tides.

The fragile water lens beneath each of our islands is very vulnerable to salt water intrusion.  This happens with all the negative scenarios – when our coasts are eroded by storms, when rising sealevels intrude from beneath, and when drought causes shrinkage of the lens. On top of this we now have major problems with over population on South Tarawa and human induced pollution of our scarce water resource.

Without fresh water, there can be no life – this, along with sea level rise, is the major threat to our existence.

We became more intimately involved with the issue when our video unit, with Australian support, assisted the Government with its presentation at the COP 15 Conference in Copenhagen in 2009.

At that time our President said “Climate Change is the greatest moral challenge of the 21st century.  It calls into question the ability of our international institutions, and our compassion as human beings, to face this issue.  We cannot handle this alone”

Throughout history nations went to war when their sovereignty or survival was threatened, and it was in a similar state of mind that our small platoon went, well armed, to Copenhagen.  With a combination of culture, human observations and the latest that science had to offer, the Kiribati Side Event attracted a large and appreciative audience – there were many tears evident.     We, had given it our best shot.

It is therefore very difficult to describe the feeling of devastation when, in the following week, Pres. Obama and other world leaders gathered.  The degree of cynicism shown by the leaders of the world’s major polluters in torpedoing any chance of a binding agreement on emission levels was astounding.  Their agenda was purely economic and related only to the generation of individual & corporate wealth. We were left with a strong sense of anger, of sadness – and of betrayal.

Now, more than three years later, very little has changed.  In the past month we have learned that new and improved satellite technology has revealed that the oceans may be rising 60 per cent faster than the IPCC’s latest best estimates.  (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research – PIK)

In the meantime the international – and donor – community calls on us to “adapt.”

Yes, we accept that we need to do more to protect our coasts and water resources threatened by thoughtless pollution, but serious and sustained adaptation is a great unknown –it requires major funds and some of the world’s finest minds to point the way.

The majority of I-Kiribati have no wish to live in another country (NTNK Nat Survey, 2011) but mounting evidence suggests that we may soon have little choice in the matter – therefore migration may become the major element of adaptation.

But, there’s a problem.  Unlike our neighbours Tuvalu (Pop: approx 10,000) we have no significant or sympathetic migration relationship or policy with any country.

The current Kiribati population is more than 103,000 (Nat. Census – 2011).   How will the region handle a sudden influx of such large numbers of homeless people?

Very obviously it needs to start now.  In some ways the beginning steps are already underway.  With significant assistance from Australia, the government has commenced a major program of education reform, extending into vocational education which is working towards achieving Australian standards.  These steps come under the desire for I-Kiribati to migrate with dignity and contribute, rather than become a burden on their new hosts.

With regard to Climate Change the world chose not to hear our cry – will it be the same with the issue of migration?

Writing this piece has been quite testing – as a realist I can perhaps see the inevitability of migration.   But on a personal level, I have no wish to live anywhere else – this is my home, this is where my ancestors lie, and this is the only place where I can fully be the person I am – a woman of Kiribati.

Share