Category Archives: Water

Local IKiribati children perform the Te Buke dance. They face an uncertain future as their islands capacity to support the population diminishes. Photo: Finn Frandsen, Politiken

Human health in a warmer future

What effect will climate change have on health in the Pacific? ABC News Australia environment journalist Sarah Clarke is exploring this question in a five-part series for the ABC…

With climate change forecasts showing the Pacific will face hotter days and more extreme weather in the future, climate scientists and medical authorities say the implications could be serious for human health.

The (Australian) Federal Government’s Climate Commission is predicting a warmer Pacific will produce more heart attacks, strokes, exhaustion and more heat-related deaths.

Pacific countries are already copping the brunt of climate change, with water and food problems causing displacement.

The report also says there is the potential for a greater spread of disease transmitting mosquitoes as rainfall patterns change.

“It’s not only mosquitoes that will thrive in warmer and wetter conditions but it will also be influenced by their natural host populations before they spill over into humans,” he said.

Read the full story at


Kiribati Adaptation Program - Phase III Project Manager Kautuna Kaitara

Why Tarawa needs water reserves

Q&A With Kiribati Adaptation Program – Phase III Project Manager Kautuna Kaitara

What is a water reserve?

A water reserve is an area of land that is reserved for the extraction of water. That is, no other activities are allowed on this land except pumping of water.

What is the purpose of a water reserve?

The purpose of declaring a water reserve is to minimise pollution of the water in this area. Water reserves are common throughout the world – in Australia the catchment areas for dams are normally some sort of reserve area.

Why is it important to have water reserves in Kiribati?

In Kiribati it is extremely important because we only have very limited water treatment and to provide additional treatment would be extremely expensive in terms of both initial outlay and operating expenses.

We want people to be healthy and have healthy drinking water. That’s why it is important to stop people toileting on the land, and pigs and other livestock using the land because that can introduce potentially very harmful bacteria. Agricultural activities, such as growing of vegetables, can also introduce harmful chemicals such as nitrates.

These aren’t the only issues. The mining of sand and gravel from the area can introduce pollutants in the process, and leaves the lens much more vulnerable because it removes a layer of protection of the water. Industrial and other activities, such as fixing of cars and letting cars die on the reserves, can also introduce very harmful chemicals and petrochemicals.

Why is ground water on South Tarawa polluted?

Given that the population density of South Tarawa is so high, and polluting activities take place on almost all the land of South Tarawa, the water lens underlying South Tarawa is extremely polluted and is not suitable for human consumption, probably even after boiling. There used to be water reserves at Betio and Teaoreareke as well as Buota and Bonriki, but the first two had to be abandoned due to population growth. The water reserves are 50-metres or more inland from the edge of the land so you would need considerable overtopping before they are affected and there are people living on the edge who will be affected long before climate change affects the water reserves.

Is there an unlimited supply of water in the water reserve?

No. The other important factor with the water lenses are that they have a limited holding capacity and if you overpump them it causes the mixing of the fresh and salt water. This will take a generation to repair if it is well mixed. It is critical that the water reserves are not extracted beyond the sustainable yield.

Facts about KAPIII

The Kiribati Adaptation Program- Phase III (KAPIII) is a five-year project under the Office of the President and funded via the World Bank GEF LDCF Trust Fund with co financing from the governments of Australia and Japan, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery partnership, as well as in-kind from the Government of Kiribati.

The objective of KAPIII is to improve the resilience of Kiribati to the impacts of climate change on freshwater supply and coastal infrastructure.

Freshwater supply projects from 2012 to 2016 include working closely with the MPWU and PUB to manage assets and provide training to staff, the installation of four new rainwater harvesting works and two infiltration gallery works in North and South Tarawa, the detection and repair of leaks in the groundwater pipe system from Buota to Betio and the rehabilitation of the Buota Water Reserve.

Tebunginako villagers stand in the sea where their village used to be. They had to relocate their village because of rising sea levels, erosion and saltwater inundation. Photo: Justin McManus, The Age

Tebunginako Village

Tebunginako villagers stand in the sea where their village used to be. They had to relocate their village because of rising sea levels, erosion and saltwater inundation. Photo: Justin McManus/The Age

Tebunginako villagers stand near the sea where their village used to be. They had to relocate their village because of rising sea levels, erosion and saltwater inundation. Photo: Justin McManus/The Age

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.”

Case study 1: Tarawa


This sea wall is all that protects these homes in the village of Abarao on the island of Tarawa. Photo: Finn Frandsen, Politiken


This sea wall is all that protects these homes in the village of Abarao on the island of Tarawa Copyright Finn Frandsen Politiken 2

This sea wall is all that protects these homes in the village of Abarao on the island of Tarawa. Photo: Finn Frandsen/Politiken

According to a World Bank report, Kiribati’s capital of Tarawa—where nearly half the population lives—will be 25-54 per cent inundated in the south and 55-80 per cent in the north by mid-century unless there is significant adaptation. Factor in what this means for poisoning of groundwater, destruction of limited arable land and spread of disease, and you have an unlivable national capital.

Kiribati’s response to climate change is focused on adaptation. Its adaptation program, backed in part by AusAID, is carrying out a scientific risk assessment for Tarawa. Kautuna Kaitara, national director of the Kiribati Adaptation Program, says the country’s airstrip will be slowly “eaten away” and water supply spoiled unless there is swift action.

In the meantime, locals are forced to take things into their own hands. Albert Ientau has lived on the water’s edge in Abarao village since 1982. He has continually had to rebuild his sea wall, and more. Mr Ientau is no fool—his re-built house is on makeshift stilts—but the water is lapping at is door before high tide, but as you can see here in this photo series, he often has to roll large boulders into the water in what appears a forlorn exercise to prevent it from returning.

Many villagers have little or no understanding of climate change, but say they know they are witnessing a shift: increasingly intrusive seas, as well as stronger and less predictable winds and more intense heat. “The average i-Kiribati [Kiribati inhabitant] certainly thinks it’s getting hotter,” says Emil Shutz, a former government minister who now runs tours for the country’s few recreational visitors. “Ten years ago they could fish all day, but not any more – it is just too hot.”

There are parts of Kiribati where you can’t see the water, most notably in the southern Tarawa hub of Betio, but the threat of climate change is consistently there. The first thing you see when you land are the sandbags that try, and fail, to stop spring tides from flooding the only airstrip. If you are forced to go to hospital, you may get your feet wet. It is regularly inundated.

Read more case studies


Totibure Muller and her son work on their sea wall that protects their home in the village of Temwaiku on the island of Tarawa. Photo: Justin McManus, The Age

Case Studies

Residents stand by the site of their former village, Tebunginako, now inundated by the sea.  Photo: Justin McManus/The Age.

Residents stand by the site of their former village, Tebunginako, now inundated by the sea. Photo: Justin McManus/The Age.

The effects of climate change can already be seen throughout most islands of Kiribati and
predictions for the future show a strong need for adaptation.

Case study 1: Tarawa: The World Bank recently predicted the capital island of Tarawa, where nearly half the country’s population resides, will be 25 to 54 per cent inundated by water in the south and 55 to 80 percent in the north by 2050 unless significant adaptation is undertaken.

Case study 2: Abaiang: Unfortunately, adaptation has come too late for some villages. The village of Tebunginako in Abaiang Island has already had to relocate due to the effects of severe coastal erosion and saltwater instrusion.


The construction team celebrate the success of the rainwater harvesting works completed on Banaba Island.

Water success for Banaba Island

Press Release, Bairiki, Tarawa 18 September, 2012

BANABA Island residents now have access to almost one million litres of rainwater thanks to the success of the Kiribati Adaptation Program’s (KAP) rainwater harvesting works.

In a joint effort between KAP, the Ministry of Public Works and Utilities (MPWU), King Holdings and the local community, construction of the Rainwater Harvesting (RWH) works was completed on 12 June, 2012.

The works, incorporated under Phase II and Phase III of KAP, comprised of various tasks needed to retrofit rainwater harvesting systems for water collection, transmission and storage infrastructure. This included the restoration of two water tanks, the installation of guttering on the desalination plant and old workshop buildings and maintenance training for a local technician.

The success of the project and regular rainfall during the past two months resulted in the tanks reaching the maximum capacity of 950,000 litres, KAP Project Manager Kautuna Kaitara said.

“Everyone involved is celebrating the successful deliverance of rainwater to Banaba, an island that is in the gravest need of water,” Mr Kaitara said.

“To give you an idea of the scale of the project, a standard rainwater tank is 5000 litres and Banaba’s new tanks hold a combined capacity of nearly one million litres. That’s the equivalent of 190 standard tanks,” he said.

The size of the roof catchment areas was about 10 times the size of a standard maneaba, he said.

“During the phosphate mining days, most water had to be imported from overseas. Then, the island depended solely on desalination.

“This proves there was no clean water supply available to the island and justified the dire need for the rainwater project.”

Banaba Island is 6.5km2 and part of the Gilbert Island chain. With just 295 residents, the one-time phosphate mining island is vulnerable to water shortages because there is no surface water or significant reservoirs of ground water.

Prior to KAP’s RWH works, Banaba Island residents depended on a combination of desalinated water and to a lesser extent rainwater.

However, the desalination plant was expensive to operate and the isolation of Banaba Island made maintenance works difficult, KAP and MPWU Senior Water Engineer Marella Rebgetz said.

“Before when the desalination plant broke down or required maintenance, Banaba had limited reserve water supply,” Ms Rebgetz said.

“Now, in most years, there should not be a need to operate the desalination plant at all,” she said.

“The project also delivered a water education program, additional materials for local communities to undertake further rainwater harvesting, and training to the local water technician to ensure the works is well-maintained in the future.

“I’m very proud to have been associated with this project. The tanks are now full and the water supply for the people of Banaba is much more secure.”

About KAP:

The Kiribati Adaptation Program began its third phase (KAPIII) in mid-2012. KAPIII aims to improve the resilience of Kiribati to the impacts of climate change on freshwater supply and coastal infrastructure.

KAPIII will achieve this objective under four key components to be achieved by 2016:

  1. Improve water resource use and management;
  2. Increase coastal resilience;
  3. Strengthen the capacity to manage the effects of climate change and natural hazards; and
  4. Project management, monitoring and evaluation.

KAP III  has a total cost of US$10.8million and will be financed through grants via the World Bank from Government of Australia; the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Least Developed Country Fund (LDCF); Japan Policy and Human Resources Development (PHRD); Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR); and in-kind contribution from the Government of Kiribati.

Tiaeke Tio and the KAPII drilling rig at Bikenibeu.

Drilling for water in Kiribati

Tiaeke Tio and the KAPII drilling rig at Bikenibeu.

Binataake Nawere stands bucketing water from his well in the strong afternoon sun at Betio in South Tarawa, Kiribati.

“We use well water for washing clothes and dishes,” says 60-year old Binataake as he fills a large container with groundwater. The residents of Betio and many of Kiribati’s residents often rely on well water to meet their needs. Fresh water is in short supply in Tarawa. The average house in Betio only receives tap-water for an hour and a half every 2 days.

The population of South Tarawa has grown from only 3,013 in 1931 to over 40,311 by 2005. Such rapid growth has led to a population density as high as 15,000 people per square kilometre on the narrow atoll islands. Tokyo, famous for overcrowding, has a population density almost three times lower.

A KAPII (Kiribati Adaptation Program – Pilot Implementation Phase II) working crew recently completed a two month long project to drill boreholes required to assess the thickness of the underground freshwater lens in Tarawa. The lens is made up of rain water that has infiltrated the soil of the atoll. This freshwater then actually floats on top of a layer of saltwater directly beneath each island.

“It is my first time to see how it works, it is really exciting,” says Tiaeke Tio, an i-Kiribati technician as he stands in front of the KAPII drilling rig. Measuring boreholes have been installed by the project at Tabiang, Tabuki and Nubeina in North Tarawa and at Bikenibeu, Bairiki and Betio in South Tarawa. These boreholes will build on the network already in place and enable ongoing assessments of the freshwater lens to be made.

The team has been led and trained by Colin Benjamin, an experienced driller from the UK. When Colin arrived in Tarawa he had some concerns about training a local team to drill. “I thought the local language and labour issues were going to be difficult and therefore training would be hard. But it was the opposite, the i-Kiribati were very good,” says Colin with a big smile on his face.

“We can now measure where the freshwater lens starts and finishes and how this changes over time. This changes as it is affected by the amount of water pumped out, rainfall, tide and climate change,” says Colin as they complete the last borehole in the grounds of the Betio Sport Complex.

This new information is necessary to plan for the sustainable use of water in Tarawa. If too much water is extracted at a location where the lens is not thick enough, saltwater is pumped up from below the freshwater lens causing contamination of the freshwater and making it unusable.

The 40,311 residents of South Tarawa are currently drawing on a groundwater supply that can only support half the population. Water scarcity is a critical issue and the risk of saltwater contamination of the freshwater lens is ever present, so discovering new water resources are critical.

Training an i-Kiribati team to operate the required equipment is vital for the sustainability of ground water monitoring in Tarawa. “As far as the local drilling crew is concerned, we have managed to put together a very efficient team that is learning a lot,” continues Colin. Tiaeke nods his head and responds, “We have been drilling down to 15 or 20 metres, getting all the parts together and getting the machine going. I am learning something new.”

“It is good to learn about looking after the water here,” says Tiaeke as he describes the importance of the KAPII team’s work to Kiribati. “It is where my ancestors lived, where I grew up, where my family is. I love the place and I love this country.”

Binataake knows well the importance of the freshwater lens. “When the government piped water supply is not operating and there is no rainwater, we only have the water from our well,” he says lifting another full bucket, something he hopes to be able to rely on, now and into the future.

The Government of Kiribati KAPII project is supported by the World Bank, the Global Environment Facility, AusAID and NZAID. The key goal is to reduce Kiribati’s vulnerability to climate change, climate variability and sea level rise.


Sea inundadtion at high tide into a former fresh water lagoon. Photo: Justin McManus, The Age

Looking to the skies in Kiribati

Rainfall is essential to recharge the freshwater lens that lies beneath coral atolls in Kiribati. Without it, the i-Kiribati people would not be able to grow plants and crops vital to their livelihood.

Freshwater can be extremely scarce in the Republic of Kiribati, home to over 100,000 people scattered across 22 islands in the Central Pacific. Each year after a long dry season, significant rainfall is generally expected to arrive during November or December. Yet over the last few months only a tiny amount of rain has fallen. The islands are dry.

This is consistent with forecasts that predict La Niña conditions will result in below normal rainfall during the 2010-11 wet season across the Gilbert Islands of Kiribati.

“We are likely to see drought conditions for most of the Gilbert Group. In the last La Niña in 2007-08 there were drought conditions that went on for 15-16 months during that time,” Douglas Ramsay, Manager for the Pacific Rim at NIWA, the New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research explains.

This rainfall is essential not only to fill rainwater tanks but also to recharge the freshwater lens that lies beneath these coral atolls. It is this water that is used for the majority of water supply via wells and infiltration galleries. The lens also allows for the growth of breadfruit, coconut palms, giant taro, pandanus and other plants species to support the livelihood of the i-Kiribati people.

In the densely populated capital of South Tarawa, it is estimated that the current demand for safe chlorinated groundwater piped to households is already 40% above the sustainable yield of the utilised lens. Without enough supply, households resort to using the polluted well. As a result, mortality rates for children due to waterborne diseases are in the order of 11 in every 1000 children, amongst the highest in the Pacific.

Under the KAPII (Kiribati Adaptation Program – Pilot Implementation Phase II), 14 outer islands in the Gilbert Group are receiving new rain gauges. KAPII is a project that aims to reduce Kiribati’s vulnerability to climate change, climate variability and sea level rise through adaptation. The islands of Abaiang, Abemama, Aranuka , Kuria, Maiana, Makin, Marakei, North Tarawa, Nikunau, Nonouti, Onotoa, Tabiteuea North, Tabiteuea South, and Tamana will have gauges installed and training provided for the water technician based on each island to record rainfall data in compliance with Kiribati Meteorological Service standards.

Before the installation of the new gauges, a great deal of data was not being collected, and the government lacked information for planning for drought and high intensity rainfall events.

Ueneta Toorua, Research Officer at the Kiribati Meteorological Service explains. “Our islands are small and widely scattered so rainfall varies between them. The general pattern is that the islands north of the equator have higher rainfall than those in the South.”

Besides this, it is also the generally hot and dry weather that has shaped customary practices on the islands.

“The temperature in Kiribati is very consistent throughout the year. This is important for drying copra and the production of dried fish. Our traditional ways are helped by having a consistent climate,” said Mr. Toorua.

As global temperatures increase due to climate change, it is anticipated that average rainfall volumes and the intensity of extreme rainfall events will increase in Kiribati. Yet this rainfall may vary greatly between the islands or fall away from the islands where it is needed most.

“Across the equatorial belt we are likely to see higher rainfall on average but that will be higher intensity, more extreme rainfall. Whether we see more intense droughts is still something that no one really knows. It will depend on how El Niños and La Niñas change with climate change,” Mr. Ramsay said.

Mr. Toorua and his colleagues at the Kiribati Meteorological Service have already seen evidence of this: “Looking at the long term trends there is an increase here in temperature and also in rainfall. On Tarawa we have more data and it has clearly shown that there is a gradual increase in both. However there may be variation in these trends between different islands.”

With the installation of rain gauges across the scattered atolls of the Gilbert Group, the hope is that the data collected will make it possible to answer some of these questions that are so fundamental to the future of Kiribati.

The I-Kiribati people live with the sea regularly threatening their homes, particularly during king tides and storms both occuring with increased frequency.  Photo: Finn Frandsen, Politiken

A call to the world

The tiny Central Pacific nation of Kiribati will be among those first affected by the twin effects of climate change and sea level rise. It’s people have been described as “the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.”

Please watch this eloquent and powerful presentation of what this small nation is facing, as its culture, lifestyle, and very sovereignty is under threat.

It is an appeal to the World and COP 15 from those most affected – the Government & people of Kiribati.