In English

Kiribati: The sinking of a country

Kiribati is sinking. Literally speaking. Not a Spanish style sinking but the kind where started by the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

situation in Kiribati. Source:

Figure 1: Situation in Kiribati. Source:

Kiribati is a state composed of 33 atolls (atolls are coral islands) and a small island known as Banaba. These insular formations located in Micronesia, between Hawaii and Australia, can be grouped into four groups: the island mentioned above Banaba, the Gilbert Islands- formed by 16 atolls-, the Phoenix Islands, – formed by 8 atolls- situated 1800 km southeast of the previous locations, and the Line Islands- composed of 8 atolls and a reef-, about 3000km east of Gilbert Islands. As a curiosity, Kiribati has the largest possession of atolls in the world.

 This archipelago only stands 2.5 meters above sea level, making it very sensible to the ocean’s oscillations. For this reasons the country’s president, Anote Tong, has spent years alerting the world that his is slowly sinking into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. The European Union and the United Nations are helping the Kiribati government finnacially, but it is obvious that money is not the solution to this problem.

 This is a complicated geographical situation that affects not only the 105,000 inhabitants of Kiribati but also the 11,810 in Tuvalu, the 66,223 in the Marshall Islands, some islands off the coast of Panama, Alaska and a never ending list of islands scattered around the globe.

 The main factor that makes the survival of this area impossible, though not the only one that we will discuss in this article, is the rising of sea level combined with their nearness to it. This almost guaranties their disappearance in about 50 years.

In the face of this inevitable reality, the leader of Kiribati has announced that urgent measures must be taken in order to assure the survival of his people. Some of the proposed ideas include:

– Construction of a giant platform above sea level, similar to the ones petroleum companies use, and move the people there.

-Permanently move the population of the islands to another territory.

-Big draining project to win territory from the sea.

 The rising sea level is not the only effect of climate change that is affecting the population of these places. There is also the melting of the icecaps from the Arctic to the Antarctic that is creating changes in the thermohaline circulation, increasing the percentage of fresh water in the ocean that when paired with the continued growth in the ocean’s absorption of atmospheric CO2 starts to acidify the water. This acidification of the ocean can destroy coral reefs and modify the behavior of marine life, and obviously cause the extinction of many more.

On the same topic, the modification of the thermohaline circulation can also cause the radicalization of atmospheric phenomena, such as tropical storms or hurricanes. Some experts alert us that the recent visit of hurricane Sandy to such high latitude is abnormal and it probably has some relation with the melting icecaps in the Arctic. Other areas that tend to have good rainfall average could end up with droughts.

 Therefore it looks like the most viable option for these people is migration, because otherwise they would be have to invest a huge amount of capital in pharaonic constructions, the ones mentioned above with platforms, dikes, high walls, etc. that would not solve their exposure to the more extreme phenomena we see happening now.  they would see as their way of life, their main resources, and their main livelihood (fishing) destroyed from the exposure to these changes.

 We have to really think about what these changes do to a human community, sometimes whole countries forced to migrate to another territory and more importantly how would these evacuations take place?

Alright then, now it is the time to put forward various hypothesis. Starting with the obvious necessity to conserve the identity of these people and making it something non-negotiable, there exist the possibility of them being accepted as refugees in another territory, or even state. Today this process of migration is being experienced by the Kuna. The Kuna are a tribe that lives in the San Blas Islands, off the coast of Panama. The Islands are rapidly flooding and therefore the population made the decision to move inland. This process that started in 2010 has at least three more years to go before it is finalized.

Figure 4: Kuna woman. Source:

Figure 2: Kuna woman. Source:

In the case of the countries in Micronesia, Kiribati, Tuvalu, etc., countries like Australia and New Zealand have been proposed as possible receptors.

 There is also the possibility of moving to a territory with similar characteristics as the one they had to leave, so they can feel identified, but one that also offers security. In the case of Kiribati and the other islands in Micronesia it is will be very complicated to find a similar space when the majority are being affected by flooding, and are highly protected. Although there are some mountainous islands, like Viti Levu, and the government of Kiribati has already placed an offer to the landholder (the Fiji government) to buy a 20 km squared plot in the island so they can move there.

 As an emergency measure, and in the case that no state would be willing to sell or house these evacuated populations, some experts are proposing the move of groups like the Kiribati to megalopolises such as Tokyo or Los Angeles, because 100,000 new people could easily be absorbed into the landscape without much trouble, although this will cause the loss of millenary cultures.

Just as it has been shown in this article climate change is not something for the future. The effects of it can be felt today. Maybe Kiribati does not seem worth of worry from the West, it is too far… but the effects of hurricanes like Sandy in latitudes much higher than normal is worth our attention. They will worry about the disappearance of populated river deltas and the magnificent structures built along coastlines.

 It is not just to help the Kiribati financially to compensate for the flooding of their land as we do nothing for the melting of the Arctic, by action or inaction, so we can enjoy the comforts of the petroleum deposits located under there, the US government estimates that there could be about 90,000 million barrels and the petroleum corporations are heavily investing in the area waiting until it opens up. To this we must add the opening of the so desirable Northwest Passage.

Figure 4: Kuna woman. Source:

Figure 3: Kuna woman. Source:

Knowing of this nonsense, Ariel Gonzalez, secretary of the Kuna General Congress commented in 2010:

“If we didn’t create this climate change, of we were not the ones that burned carbon and petroleum in large quantities, why are we the ones that have to migrate and change our way of life? Who is responsible?”

 Then, it is obvious that the effects of global warming are very real for places like Kuna and Kiribati, so real that they see themselves forced to abandon their land just to look back and see nothing ever again, only water,

 Translation: Daniela Sánchez


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