Kiribati, made up of low-lying atolls, is one of the most climate-vulnerable nations in the world
By Jonathan Fowler
CANCUN, Mexico, 22 May 2017 – For island nations on the frontline of climate change and a swathe of natural hazards, the issue of whether communities should give up the battle and leave is never far away.
Meeting on the eve of the 2017 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Cancun, Mexico, representatives of the world’s Small Island Developing States (SIDS) have come together to exchange lessons and spotlight the challenges that they face.
The 57-strong SIDS grouping has members in all of the planet’s oceans, mostly clustered in the Caribbean and the Pacific. In the latter, many of the countries are made up of low-lying atolls, where rising sea-levels and increasingly frequent and intense storms are testing the resilience of communities.
“Even a small hurricane can destroy all of our coastal areas,” said Ms. Lani Milne, Chief of Coastal, Land and Conservation at the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ Environmental Protection Authority.
Particularly symbolic of the problem is Kiribati. It is made up of 33 small islands scattered across the ocean, with more than half its population crowded onto just one, the capital, South Tarawa. Many of its atolls rise just two metres above sea level.
“We’re one of the countries that’s most vulnerable to climate change,” said Ms. Mimitong Kirata, a Kiribati government risk management expert, who detailed defence measures including building new seawalls and planting mangroves.
Kiribati’s former president, Mr. Anote Tong, was a vocal advocate on the international stage during his three terms in office from 2003 to 2016, taking the stage at events such as the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction and the Paris climate conference, both in 2015.
Already at the 2009 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, he implored the international community to take effective action against climate change before it became too late for Kiribati and other Pacific SIDS. And five years ago, his government decided to buy land in Fiji as a form of insurance against climate change, in case people needed to move to survive.
Population movement is a fiercely complex issue, and not just because of shifting global debates about migration. Internal migration can bring its own problems, due to a lack of capacity in other parts of a country, and also raises the prospect of unplanned urbanization that can make communities more vulnerable to a range of risks.
The loss of economic opportunities for coastal villagers who rely on fishing, farming and tourism also comes into play, as does the fact that breaking a connection with a home location can be a psychological blow.
“It’s a very sensitive issue. In most cases, communities along the coastline consider the location to be their ancestral property,” said Mr. Ben Tokataake, from Kiribati’s Ministry of Public Works and Utilities.
The challenges of geography are also huge, underlined Mr. Jeem Lippwe, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Federated States of Micronesia at the United Nations.
“The issue of relocation is a very difficult one,” he said. “The islands of Micronesia are a combination of very small islands made of corals, and a few islands with mountains. So the idea that people talk about when they say you have to move inland is not applicable. It cannot work. Because when you move inland, it means that you just move to the other side of the island, where the ocean meets you.”
In the islands with higher ground, the land tends to be rocky, hampering farming, he said. “And even if our islands don’t go under, saltwater intrusion into our farmlands and fresh water ruins our land,” he added.
Mr. Ronald Jackson, Executive Director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), said that relocation meant “hard decisions”.
“The question is what decisions and trade-offs need to be made,” he said.
Community resilience is a key theme at the three-day SIDS meeting, and will be equally so at the Global Platform, with which it dovetails.
Along with UN agencies, the SIDS event was also organized by the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), which runs the Small Island State Initiative, a programme that helps SIDS to share lessons.
“I think it is very important that the small island states get the kind of recognition that is required,” said Mr. Desmond McKenzie, Jamaica’s Minister for Local Government and Community Development. “The challenges that we face are for real,” he said.