Kiribati, South Pacific

A Nation underwater

Kiribati is a small island state consisting of 33 islands dispersed over 3.5 million km² in the Pacific Ocean. Two thirds of its land surface is less than 2m above sea level which makes the country extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels. Here’s a story about how three generations of a family are dealing with the challenges imposed on them by climate change.

My name is Tiaho.

I am 55 years old. I live in Kiribati. It is a place of strong culture and tradition. “The islands are so important to our people. The land is life to us”. Our people are proud to be I-Kiribati.

* 72 Dangerous Places to Live – Episode 1 : Time & Tide; Netflix. Produced by Bree Davies, David Karsten, Ray Pedretti, Trish Robinson. 2016.

The sea was a safe place when I was a girl. We fished, played in the water, and collected shells.

The water never came too close, not even during high tide, and the beaches were pristine. White sands. There were green trees everywhere, palms and mangroves. We lived in Paradise.

We used to go to my favourite beach and swim. Families used to cook food there and have picnics.

It is gone now, fully submerged in the water.

  • According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the atmosphere of the Earth has been warming by 0.85°C between 1880 and 2012. This rise in temperature caused glaciers to melt and led to a thermal expansion of the sea water, both contributing to an average sea level rise of 3.2 mm per year between 1993 and 2010.

  • In Kiribati, sea levels are projected to rise between 9 and 28cm by 2055, increasing the impact of storm surges and coastal flooding. 

For more information, please see our Resources page.

Each day at high tide the water comes right up to our house.

My son Taito has been building a wall around the house for the last 10 years – in hopes that it will keep the water out. We hope that one day it will be big and strong enough to protect our house, even during big storms.

Scientists say that in the next 25 years most of Kiribati will be underwater. That it will be uninhabitable. I feel devastated that my grandchildren won’t ever know Kiribati as I have.

My name is Taito.

I am 34 years old.

Each day at low tide I go far, far out and gather coral for the wall I am building.

We will have the best wall around the house, like a fortress. My mother, Tiaho, grew up here. It is a simple house that her grandparents built. It’s where our family belongs.

One day the whole place will be under water but I want to try and save our house.

The coral is strong and breaks the waves.

The rocks were no good because the water just came and took the wall away every time I built it.

Our drinking water, which has always come from wells, often gets contaminated from the flooding. This is one of the more serious risks for my family – as many times the well water made my kids quite sick. Unfortunately, this is not unusual.

We have since adapted our drinking water to include a rainwater harvesting system.

  • Climate change exacerbates the pre-existing vulnerabilities in Kiribati. Water supply and sanitation are often inadequate and, due to the high population density, natural resources are overexploited. Diarrhea and malnutrition are prevalent.

  • There was even a cholera outbreak in 1977, while dengue fever outbreaks happened in both 2003 and 2004. Warmer temperatures and increased precipitation make these mosquito-borne diseases more likely and sea surges and intense rains can contaminate the drinking water.

For more information, please see our Resources page.

The government has talked about us leaving – finding a new home for all of us on another land. My brother Toatu has gone to New Zealand- he was selected through an immigration lottery.

He will train for a new job, and he his family will join him once he is working.

I also know of others who have immigrated and found work abroad; I’ve even heard of some people trying to leave as refugees! The immigration process is so complex, and the rules seem to keep changing. I don’t want to leave. We are attached to our home. And what would I do in another country? The way of life is so different! How could we pay for a house there?

My brother says life is very difficult for him. He doesn’t know if he will ever find the means to come back and visit. I was sad when he left, the whole family knew this might be the last time we saw him.

That’s why my hope is that my wife and I, and our children will be able to stay here. How can I be I-Kiribati on another people’s land?* How can I start over somewhere else?

*72 Dangerous Places to Live – Episode 1 : Time & Tide; Netflix. Produced by Bree Davies, David Karsten, Ray Pedretti, Trish Robinson. 2016.

  • People displaced by climate change do not qualify for refugee status under international law, nor is there an existing legal category for environmental migration. Climate migrants often relocate within the same country, but if they do want to cross borders, they often need a work visa to do so. New Zealand has created a specific entry category for Pacific Islanders, offering permanent residency to up to 75 Kiribati nationals per year. Applicants must be between 18 and 45 years old and prove that they have a job offer and that they will be able to support themselves once they are in New Zealand.

For more information, please see our Resources page.

My name is Anna.

I am 10 years old. I live in Kiribati.

At school we talk a lot about Climate Change. We are learning that Climate Change is caused by human activities, and it has lots of different effects, like water levels rising, temperatures increasing, and unstable weather.

My teacher tells us that we need to find ways to prevent “soil erosion”; I didn’t know what this was. I now know that it means the top layer of the ground being blown away by the wind or washed away by water. When this happens it can affect trees, plants and food from growing. My teacher asked our class to do drawings to show ways to prevent soil erosion. I learned that we could plant mangrove trees and build seawalls.

Our home still floods. It happened once at night and my dad had to carry me out of the house, and mom was crying. Climate change scares my friends and me. We worry about what will happen if the sea levels keep rising, and if we have to leave our country.

Sometimes we get sick from the water when it gets dirty after flooding.

It’s very scary when babies get sick, they become very weak and sometimes they die. Mom always worries about the water being clean and won’t let my brothers and I drink water until she has boiled it. I hear that my government is trying to find solutions for us. Governments around the world are also trying to do what they can to slow down climate change.

Some people say that everybody will have to leave our country in the next 25 years if we don’t stop the water from rising. I will be 35 years old then and even maybe have children of my own.

“Once you leave your homeland, you begin to lose your culture,” my dad says, but I know I could never forget my country. I just want to be healthy and happy and have a safe place to live in the future.

  • Former President Anote Tong had been active in advocating for strict carbon emission reduction policies on the international stage and his government had purchased land from Fiji as a potential destination for planned relocation for a part of the Kiribati population. His successor, Taneti Maamau, has shifted the focus of climate change policies and is planning to artificially raise the island of Tarawa by 0.5 – 1m.

For more information, please see our Resources page.