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Kiribati – still not drowning, waving

Islands, particularly Pacific islands, are the poster children of environmental catastrophe or alarmism, depending on your attitude towards the issue of man-made climate change. Like the polar bears deprived of ice, the islands too are said to soon drown underneath the rising seas, sending forth hundreds of thousands of climate refugees. None more so than Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas), in the central Pacific.

Its main island, Tarawa, is a sinuous atoll, which at no point reaches more than 3 metres above sea level. Some 60,000 people, most of them very young, are squeezed on the 500 square kilometres of sand, majority of them on a fraction of that land. It certainly sounds precarious if not dire an existence, even without the spectre of becoming a modern-day Atlantis.

Kiribati’s leaders, as well as those of other small island states, have long been on the forefront of the international anti-CO2 crusade. They are also very much at the forefront of raising aid money based on the climate change threat. It is not surprising; just as Africa has attracted significantly more Western money to fight AIDS than other, more ordinary and less newsworthy, though no less deadly diseases, the Western donors are more likely to open their purses when confronted with the call “climate change”, which has become a new magic incantation akin to “open Sesame”, and with the same result. It seems though that the aid money is rising much faster the ocean levels:

Scientists have been surprised by the findings, which show that some islands have grown by almost one-third over the past 60 years.

Among the island chains to have increased in land area are Tuvalu and neighbouring Kiribati, both of which attracted attention at last year’s Copenhagen climate summit.In the study, researchers compared aerial photographs and high-resolution satellite images of 27 islands taken since the 1950s.Only four islands, mostly uninhabited, had decreased in area despite local sea level rises of almost five inches in that time, while 23 stayed the same or grew.Seven islands in Tuvalu grew, one by 30 per cent, although the study did not include the most populous island.

In Kiribati, the three of the most densely populated islands, Betio, Bairiki and Nanikai, also grew by between 12.5 and 30 per cent.

Professor Paul Kench, of Auckland University, who co-authored the study with Dr Arthur Webb, a Fiji-based expert on coastal processes, said the study challenged the view that the islands were sinking as a result of global warming.

“Eighty per cent of the islands we’ve looked at have either remained about the same or, in fact, got larger.

“Some have got dramatically larger,” he said.

“We’ve now got evidence the physical foundations of these islands will still be there in 100 years,” he told New Scientist magazine.

He said the study suggested the islands had a natural ability to respond to rising seas by accumulating coral debris from the outlying reefs that surround them.

“It has long been thought that as the sea level goes up, islands will sit there and drown. But they won’t,” Professor Kench said.

I have not been to Tuvalu, but I have been to Kiribati, or more precisely, to Tarawa, its main population centre, familiar to history buffs as a scene of a bloody World War Two battle, which gave the United States the foretaste of what Iwo Jima and Okinawa would be later.

As one very senior official from a Pacific nation that shall remain nameless told me during the visit, “The problem with Kiribati is that they will drown in their shit long before they drown in the ocean.”

A rather crude formulation, but it points to some hard truths, the chief among them that of all the myriad problems that Kiribati and other similar island states face, there are dozens more serious and more immediate than climate change.

Tarawa is grossly overpopulated. The island would struggle to sustain a much smaller population, never mind the current 60,000 residents. The whole country is not economically viable. There is in fact no economy as such. The only natural resource is the fisheries, the rights to which are sold to foreign fleets, including the Japanese and South Korean ones. That and the foreign aid provide the largest sources of revenue for the government, but hardly any jobs. The standard of living is correspondingly low, as is that of government services. Infrastructure, including water and sanitation, ranges from non-existent to poor. Residents use the lagoon inside the atoll as a very public toilet. Not surprisingly there is hardly any tourist industry; Kiribati is the second least visited country on Earth. The lovely and friendly people of Kiribati try to make the most of what few cards they have been dealt by life, but it is a hopeless struggle.

The official is right: the problems flowing from climate change might happen far in the future, if at all; the problems flowing from over-population, economic unviability, and poor governance are real and immediate. But they don’t excite Western consciences as much as prospects of sunken islands and climate refugees, and consequently don’t open wallets nearly as wide as a good environmental scare. The islanders understand that. I’m not suggesting for a moment that they don’t honestly believe in the reality of climate change and the threat it poses to their future, but they certainly know how to milk it for all the publicity and aid. For small island states, environmental vulnerability, or perception thereof, is as much an economic asset as the fisheries, even if far less tangible.

Kiribati will not disappear, at least not any time soon. Its unviability as a state, however, poses a clear and present danger to its residents, and a challenge to developed regional neighbours and donors. There might come a time when countries like Australia, New Zealand or perhaps the United States might have to effectively absorb countries like Kiribati in order to save them. Economic refugees will turn up on our doorstep much sooner than climate refugees.

Most of the problems facing the world are old, ordinary, and familiar. These are the challenges of health, education, and economic growth. They are not sexy, and don’t make for as exciting a documentary as “An Inconvenient Truth”. But they are very real, difficult to fix, and much more pressing. This is the real, boring inconvenient truth of the international relations.

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