Kiribati looking at all options
Kiribati is facing stark choices with its overcrowded and under-nourished Tarawa Atoll, and says it is still finding its way through a climate change minefield, as rising sea levels and land erosion threaten its population.
Kiribati says it is still finding its way through a climate change minefield, as rising sea levels and land erosion threaten its population.
With a dense population on the capital, Tarawa Atoll, the country has welcomed the support of the European Union, to go with ongoing aid assistance from Australia and New Zealand.
With 110,000 people spread across 32 atolls and 3.5 million square kilometres, scientists and leaders told Alex Perrottet it's a very difficult logistical challenge.
The rain has brought the roadwork project on Tarawa to a standstill. The road is covered in potholes and houses are literally sitting in puddles. Most returning observers say they've never seen Tarawa like this, and the President, Anote Tong, says the symptoms are unprecedented.
ANOTE TONG: The freshwater lens underground has been affected, food crops have been affected, so people are screaming. And so for the first time this challenge is coming. We've never had to face this previously. And so we are trying to find our way to addressing this.
The Secretariat of the Pacific Community is working on practical solutions. One new initiative is a health laboratory based at the hospital, which will test the quality of drinking water.
The head of SPC's Applied Geoscience and Technology Division, Mike Petterson, says having clean drinking water is a human right and Kiribati is lagging behind. He says one way of saving water is to fix the piping that leads from the precious supply at the Bonriki underground freshwater lens.
MIKE PETTERSON:We're trying to ensure that that acquifer is protected. Protected from human waste, protected from animal waste, and also that we pipe the water from there with minimal leakage. At the moment it's 30 percent leakage, or thereabouts. Getting it from the acquifer in the piped water supply, in the urban population.
Mike Petterson says even simple education programmes about how to maintain water tanks will help. He says complicated and technical plans like desalination are not the way to go, as it's expensive and hard to maintain in such a remote place.
The Kiribati Health Minister Dr Kautu Tenaua says even the water in the lagoon is becoming contaminated and affecting the shellfish, which is the main food supply. He says a lack of arable land means more imported processed foods, and these contribute to non-communicable diseases.
KAUTU TENAUA: Almost 90 percent of the population in South Tarawa are eating processed foods. We buy everything from the shops - imported rice, flour, sugar, tinned fish. The majority of the population just go mostly for processed foods.
A paper in January's edition of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies journal by Kelly Wyett recommends migration - and says Australia and New Zealand are best placed to help, should the trends continue.
But others on the ground are adamant there can be sustainable solutions on the atolls. The EU has donated a barge so that land can be dredged, to protect vulnerable beaches of South Tarawa. But the shoreline is facing a fast erosion - and as the Minister of Finance, Tom Murdoch, says, people are taking land away from the shore, because they don't have any of their own for their houses.
TOM MURDOCH: Our people tend to take aggregate or the gravels from the shoreline and use them to build homes, constructing other projects, so there is a real need in that area.
Mike Petterson says many other countries have used dredging and in Kiribati it's just a matter of cost, and politics.
MIKE PETTERSON: We could build an artificial island bigger than the islands that are already here. That's not an issue - it's proven technology. The issue is political will and money. If you've got those two, this place in the future could be full of little islands. Some could be for gardens or farms. And the other thing is you increase your water supply because you produce another groundwater lens.
3000 kilometres away on Kiritimati island, there's a lot more land, and there has been talk in the past of relocation. The power foreman of the ministry of Line and Phoenix islands development, Kaeka Erieru, says not everyone on Kiritimati was happy with that idea, although he would support it.
KAEKA ERIERU: We don't have a development. The development needs more people. Some people are against, they don't want some people to come. They think that this island, they own and no more people can come.
The EU and the SPC are working together to conserve the water lens there as well, as it won't meet demand by a bigger population than the current 6000.
Kiritimati Island does have a prevailing easterly breeze and the EU Commissioner of Development Andris Piebalgs queried the SPC representatives why they aren't harnessing that even more. Mr Piebalgs says the EU is trying to help people stay on the atolls, but conditions need major improvements.
ANDRIS PIEBALGS: I think it's crucial, if they, we would like for people to continue to live on the islands. I mean perhaps you can live but it's definitely not decent living. With very short life expectancy, with huge unemployment, and I think it's just not acceptable, I would just exclude such an option.
It may not yet have job opportunities, but with the investment in the airport runway, the fisheries department, and renewable energy, the donors are certainly investing.
Kiritimati is the single biggest atoll in the world in terms of land space, something that Tarawa atoll is desperately losing.
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