In these beds, women were either in the process of giving birth or recovering from labour. They and their newborn babies were forced to relocate further inland, to a sports stadium. Women and babies had to share the stadium with other hospital patients, and with no time to assemble screens, there was no privacy – but at least they were safe for now.
The king tide came shortly before Cyclone Pam brought severe damage to Kiribati and utter devastation to Vanuatu in March. It was unusual, because it rose three metres high on a clear, calm and sunny day, and came from the lagoon rather than the open ocean side of the island.
This is one of the stories that I heard on my recent trip to the Pacific Island nation. I was there as a guest of Pacific Calling Partnership, to understand first hand the impacts of climate change on one of the most vulnerable nations on earth. Tarawa atoll is the capital of Kiribati and is where I spent most of my time. It is only three metres above sea level at its highest point, 45 km long at the widest point and is densely populated with 55,000 inhabitants.
Kiribati is a string of 32 atolls and a coral island spread out along the equator to the North East of Australia. I was overwhelmed by the resilience, optimism, warmth and generosity of the people and the richness of their culture. It is seafaring nation and one where people have deep connections to the land – land is identity.
While king tides have always been part of life in Kiribati and other Pacific Island nations, including Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, in recent times they have been exacerbated by climate change. The sea level itself has risen due to climate change, so at high tide the water comes still higher than in the past. When a high tide is accompanied by a storm surge – a rise in the sea caused by strong winds and low atmospheric pressure – the consequences can be devastating.
Kiribati will be one of many countries coming together in Port Moresby for the Pacific Islands Forum from 7 September, the region’s premier meeting at which climate change will be high on the agenda.
A representative of the Australian Government is also expected to attend, and will most certainly have to defend their government’s woefully inadequate action on climate change, amongst nations most affected by it despite having done the least to cause it.
The Beito hospital that was evacuated now has a sea wall protecting it. But the arrangement of sea walls on Tarawa Island is haphazard. Some are strong and supported by different religious communities to protect their properties. Others are built to protect vital infrastructure such as sections of the road, which are frequently washed away, making it difficult to transport goods and aeroplane fuel from the port in the south of the island to the villages and airport in the north.