Migration not a matter of choice but survival, says Kiribati President

Children in the village of Tebikenikora, on Kiribati’s main Tarawa atoll (Photo: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe )
 
By Brigitte Leoni

BANGKOK, 15 March 2012 - Following a recent decision by its Cabinet to buy land in Fiji as 'climate change insurance' for its population, Kiribati President, Anote Tong has called on the international community to address the effects of climate change that could wipe out the entire Pacific archipelago.

While the governments of both the Pacific island nations are currently in talks about the nearly 6,000 acres of fertile land on Fiji's main island, Viti Levu which is being offered by a church group for $9.6 million, President Tong hopes that it will never be necessary for the 103,000 people of Kiribati to leave.

The move comes three years after President Tong took centre stage at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction to implore the international community to take effective action against climate change before it became too late for Kiribati and other small island developing states of the Pacific.

This week he told the media: "We would hope not to put everyone on one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it. It wouldn't be for me, personally, but would apply more to a younger generation. For them, moving won't be a matter of choice. It's basically going to be a matter of survival."

Jerry Velasquez, Head of UNISDR Asia Pacific, believes that now is not time to give up. "We still have time to build community resilience and press on with efforts to mitigate catastrophic climate change before it's too late. Climate migration, if it has to happen, should be an adaptation option for resilient communities," he said.

Kiribati is at the heart of the debate on climate change. Many of its atolls rise just 2.0 metres above sea level. It is comprised of 33 tiny islands scattered across the ocean with more than half its population crowded onto one island - South Tarawa, the capital.

This recent development in Kiribati comes on the heels of a new Asia Development Bank (ADB) report released last week, which states that low-lying Pacific islands will be extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise, high intensity cyclones, and storm surges.

The report, Addressing Climate Change and Migration in Asia and the Pacific highlights that with warmer seas, more intense cyclones could become a pattern. It further predicts widespread coastal inundation for Kiribati's main island.

Released at the Second Asia-Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum in Bangkok, the report identifies Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Papua New Guinea as Pacific migration hotspots due to climate change.

Kiribati and Tuvalu face the highest threat from sea-level rise while Papua New Guinea is expected to experience greater risk from flash flooding across the highlands and coastal flooding along the south coast, according to the report.

According to ADB some 42 million people in the Asia Pacific region were displaced by environmental disasters in the past two years. Larger countries will also face tough migration challenges due to climate change in the coming years. India, for example, has the highest number of people who may be affected by rising sea levels; thirty seven million of its citizens may be impacted by climate change by 2050.

"If we cannot save Kiribati tomorrow, we will also be obliged to move millions of people from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, Manila, the capital of the Philippines and many other cities in the world sooner or later'', said Jerry Velasquez.

Over the last five years, President Tong has continued to stress that his country may become uninhabitable by the 2050s due to rising sea levels and salination provoked by climate change.

On Abaiang, one of Kiribati's remote outer islands, an empty sandbar is evidence of the encroaching sea. There was a village there once called Tebunginako. Residents were forced to relocate after the sea ruined crops and drinking water. Then a large storm destroyed their houses. Some of the villagers have rebuilt further inland; others have scattered for good.
Regional Platforms for Disaster Risk Reduction take place from Africa to the Pacific Regional Platforms for Disaster Risk Reduction take place from Africa to the Pacific.
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