Just over a week ago, the Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton were caught out laughing and joking about sea-level rise threatening Pacific Islanders’ home. They pair have since apologised – but as Richard Marles writes today, climate change in the Pacific is not a laughing matter.
The 45 minute drive from the airport to Betio on South Tarawa quickly clarifies what the issue of climate change means for the coral atoll nation of Kiribati.
You pass through an area inhabited by 50,000 people on a thin strip of land. In places the width of the road is the width of the island. At most points the sea is visible from both sides of the car. And despite being in the middle of the Pacific, a long way from the nearest million person city, this place is crowded. Every square inch of soil is being used. Every section of ground is precious.
On reaching your destination you are told that along the way you drove over the highest mountain in Tarawa. But you needed to be told because measuring a full three metres it was a literal hump in the road. You are also told that just the smallest rise in sea levels will ruin this place. But by now that has become abundantly clear.
Tarawa is the capital of Kiribati. It is a magnificent coral atoll surrounding a turquoise lagoon sixty kilometres in diameter. From the air it is a picture of paradise. Over the years it has been the destination for significant internal migration, so that half the country’s population now live there. Accordingly, the islets of South Tarawa are the most densely populated of the Pacific. The islet of Betio at the end of the atoll chain (the scene of the Battle of Tarawa in WWII) is one of the most densely populated islands in the world.
If sea level rises occur, well before Tarawa becomes submerged it will be uninhabitable. Changing weather patterns, with more severe and frequent storms, give rise to tidal surges that inundate houses on a basis that becomes too regular for repair.
But it is access to water which is the biggest issue. South Tarawa has groundwater which has been the source of its water for millennia. When a storm occurs the groundwater can become salty but over time flushes out and is drinkable again. Yet now the frequency of storms and over-population is rendering large portions of the groundwater permanently saline. Already half the groundwater in South Tarawa is undrinkable.