The village of Tebunginako on the island of Abaiang is a barometer for what Kiribati can expect in the future. The community has had to relocate due to the effects of severe coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion. These impacts are already felt on the atolls of Kiribati and will be exacerbated by the effects of climate change.
When a coconut tree dies, the decay starts at the top. First the fruit falls, then the leaves. All that is left is a desiccated trunk, cut off at half-mast. In a low-lying area flooded with seawater, the dead palms look like natural tidal gauges, the high water mark visible on their stranded remains. There is no shortage of them in Tebunginako, a tiny village on an outer island of the Pacific republic of Kiribati.
Over the past 40 years the villagers have seen the sea rise, storm surges become more frequent and spring tides more forceful. Eventually the erosion was so great that the village had to be abandoned. The remains of about 100 thatched homes and a community meeting hall, or maneabe, sit up to 30 metres offshore. ”The contamination of the groundwater started in the late ’70s, and after that erosion started and houses started to fall into the sea,” recalls Aata Maroieta, the village chief said. ”The force of erosion was stronger than the sea walls and eventually the Government said, ‘All you can do is relocate.”
At Tebunginako, the money might have to be spent on another relocation. The village was rebuilt about 15 years ago, initially about 50 metres from the shore. It wasn’t far enough. Each day at high tide a handful of houses and the village’s biggest buildings—a Catholic church and giant concrete maneabe—are surrounded by a saltwater moat as the sea flows in and floods what was once a fresh-water pond.
Just like the coast, the food supply is in retreat. The fresh water milkfish that once fed the entire village are long gone, and plant life is fatally overdosing on salt. Taro—a starchy vegetable that grows in groundwater pits more than 200 metres from the coast—is increasingly killed by king tides.
Each year, villagers need to head further inland to find fresh food and water, but Kiribati’s 33 coral atolls and islands are skinny and average a height above sea level of only two metres. Inland only goes back so far.
”It is very difficult to find food these days,” Mr Maroieta says. ”It makes us feel sad that there is nothing left of our village. This is the place of our ancestors and we feel threatened and vulnerable.”