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As Ocean Rises, Kiribati Islands Plan to Evacuate

The remains of a gas station submerged as the waters rise over Kiribati.

The President of Kiribati calls it “migration with dignity.” The ocean is rising. Fresh water wells are filling with sea water. Dead people can no longer be buried. The nation’s government sees no way out.

The nation of Kiribati (pronounced Kirr-i-bas) comprises 33 islands along the Pacific equator. Once a British protectorate, It was fought over during World War II by the Americans and Japanese. Some of their armor still sits on the beaches.

Today, the invasion comes from the ocean – and it actually is the ocean. Kiribati is going under.

An article about Kiribati’s “end game against climate change” is in The Global Mail today. Bernard Lagan writes about the islanders, their president, Anote Tong, who was educated in New Zealand and England; Father Martin, the parish priest who used to be a climate change skeptic … until his church started flooding; Tessie Eria Lambourne, Kiribati’s New Zealand-educated foreign secretary, who’s negotiating with other nations; and others who are trying to lead their people to new lands.

In June 2008, Tong … made headlines around the world when he said: “We may be beyond redemption. We may be at the point of no return, where the emissions in the atmosphere will carry on contributing to climate change, to produce a sea-level change so in time our small nation will be submerged.”

… Zambia offered to take as many people from Kiribati as it could, but the African country’s President died before his offer could be taken up. Timor-Leste, an almost equally impoverished land, also offered to take as many immigrants from Kiribati as wanted to come.

New Zealand offers 75 places a year to migrants from the islands and atolls. Australia, which already has schemes to take Kiribati nurses and horticultural workers, is stepping up its vocational training aid on Kiribati so that more people will be able to obtain qualifications that might allow them entry and employment within Australia.

Tong says his country has 30 to 60 years before it is completely uninhabitable. The World Bank says that the main island, South Tarawa, will be inundated by the sea by 2050.

The whole notion of mass emigration is obviously troubling to people with a homeland, a culture and a history. Foreign secretary Lambourne says her people do not want to be seen as climate-change refugees.

“We prefer to be called displaced people. We do not want to be called refugees because that is very painful for both the people involved and those who are seeking help and those who are helping people look for new homes.

“It is a last resort for us. Our people are not being forced to leave but we want to give them that option. The government wants to give them all the tools, in terms of job training, they need so that when they decide to leave, they will go as dignified people. They won’t go as burdens to the countries receiving them. They will contribute.”

And the article concludes:

Tong’s frustration — even desperation — with the slow pace of international action on climate change, even as he has his hand outstretched for its aid, is understandable.

He leads a country that barely contributes to climate change, but which has everything to lose because of it.

Here’s a video the explores the situation as Kiribati succumbs to the ocean. It runs about 25 minutes: