Kiribati is increasingly experiencing flooding and inundation events, as well as rising seas. Photo: Supplied

Driving along the lone road of Kiribati’s capital, there’s a slight rise about halfway between the airport and Betio village at the other end of the hook-shaped atoll.

At its peak there’s a sign, like the ones found in small towns around the world, advertising a quirky point of difference.

“Mauri & welcome to Eita. The highest point on South Tarawa 3 Metres above sea level.”

The 33 low-lying atolls that make up Kiribati are struggling against rising seas, and the increasing frequency and ferocity of king tides, and other storm events that inundate schools, hospitals and homes.

The country has become the canary in the coalmine in the fight against climate change.

During the past few years, there’s been no shortage of news coverage on its challenges, helped in part by the country’s former President Anote Tong.

Tong coined the phrase ‘migration with dignity’, and began to prepare his countrymen to leave before they were forced out, as scientific predictions put Kiribati underwater in the next 100 years.

A deal was struck with Fiji for land near Naviavia village on the mountainous island of Vanua Levu, and Tong began to share his plan for inevitable migration with the world.

Climate change is exacerbating existing challenges faced by the developing country. Photo: Supplied

But Tong is no longer in office, and the new Government led by Taneti Maamau has done everything it can to wipe the ‘migration with dignity’ plans from the minds of its people.

Maamau’s policy is best described as ‘stay and fight’, relying on adaptation and mitigation measures.

A former official for Tong’s government says Maamau sees the former administration as “throwing in the towel” and admitting the country’s doomed.

The man, who did not want to be named due to his current employment situation, disputes this, saying it’s about being realistic about scientific projections, and giving i-Kiribati a choice in the matter.

Newsroom was unable to find out exactly how Maamau categorises Tong’s approach, or his true feelings towards the prospect of climate migration or forced displacement, because despite repeated requests and subsequent promises of interviews, that discussion never happened.

But it’s fair to say the debate over climate migration is heated, and in the past few years, it’s become a political tug of war in a country that has no time to spare in creating a plan for the future.

Climate now biggest migration driver

The world is experiencing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 68.5 million people have been forced to leave their homes, and that number will increase as rising seas and extreme weather events destroy homes, food and income sources.

Until now, the world’s reference point for the global refugee crisis has been the Middle Eastern conflict and its flow-on to Europe.

But in 2017, University of Otago economics researcher Dennis Wesselbaum discovered climate has now taken over as the strongest driver of migration.

“There’s also this threshold story, where it’s business as usual but at some point something snaps, and things change. It’s about being prepared for that moment.”

His analysis of international migration figures over 35 years finds not only are the effects of climate change influencing decisions to migrate, it is a stronger driver than income and political freedom.

The research shows weather events, like storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts have different effects on migration, and single or unforeseen events, like storms, can have a long-lasting impact on a country’s migration figures.

“It is clear climate migration is a global issue that needs cross-country discussion. Both developed and at-risk countries need more planning and policy to prepare for what is likely to be a growing trend of people wanting to move from countries experiencing climate change.,” Wesselbaum says.

“There’s also this threshold story, where it’s business as usual but at some point something snaps, and things change. It’s about being prepared for that moment.”

Wesselbaum thinks the tipping point will come within the next 10 years.

This gives countries a limited window to create policies to address climate-related migration. The problem is a lack of available, accurate data.

But controversy surrounding climate change makes it difficult to have the discussion about climate-related displacement.

Add to that current anti-migration sentiment, and growing nationalist views, around the world as demonstrated by Brexit, Trump’s America and in the response to the UN Migration Compact.

“I just can’t see that this will become less of the problem heading into the future,” Wesselbaum says.

Day-to-day challenges take precedence in Kiribati

Most of Kiribati’s capital is not much more than a couple of hundred metres wide; in some points it’s far more narrow.

Families therefore have no choice but to live by the shoreline. Homes, schools, hospitals and roads are also vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and are frequently flooded.

Everyone on the island knows about climate change, sea level rise, and what the global community is saying about their country’s fate. But that isn’t what occupies their minds day-to-day.

One young woman who runs a resort on neighbouring North Tarawa says the most she talks about rising seas is when researchers and reporters visit. It’s foreigners who raise the issue.

Driving along the single road that snakes up the middle of South Tarawa, the challenges facing i-Kiribati are unavoidable. Photo: Laura Walters

New Zealand High Commissioner to Kiribati Michael Upton says climate change is important, but there are other pressures that take priority.

These include: issues that come with poorly planned infrastructure; a lack of fresh and clean water; access to toilets and proper sanitation systems; severe over-crowding – in some places density is on-par with Tokyo or Hong Kong; difficulty growing crops thanks to a lack of arable land; and competition for limited jobs.

These realities are unavoidable on South Tarawa, thanks to the one road that runs straight up the centre of the island, with small villages dotted on either side.

More than half of the country’s 110,000 people live on this one island.

Volunteer Service Abroad in-country programme manager Trevor Johnston says this roads means visitors can’t avoid the harsh realities of life in Kiribati, as they might be able to in other parts of the Pacific.

Travelling from one end of South Tarawa to the other, you can see the shack-like homes, with families sleeping literally one on top of the other. You can see the pigs in corrugated iron pens; and children washing on the side of the street or in the lagoon – where they also defecate and sometimes fish.

The problem is that climate change exacerbates all these issues.

No-one wants to abandon their land

I-Kiribati who spoke to Newsroom said they did not want to leave their land.

“People in the Pacific are no different from people anywhere else. Their roots are there, no one just willingly abandons their roots,” UNICEF Pacific head Sheldon Yett says.

“People want to find ways to stay, to make it work, and be where their ancestors were, where their grandparents were, where their kids grew up; where they have so many great memories. And who wants to get on a boat to go to a community that may or may not welcome them?”

But former official says giving people good options for migration isn’t about admitting defeat, it’s about being realistic and giving people a choice.

Many i-Kiribati spend hours fishing each day to feed their families and sell fish at small market stalls. Photo: Laura Walters

“Nobody wants to admit the fact that you’re doomed. It’s hard for anyone to do that.

“But if you’re a leader you don’t need to be emotional, you have to be practical, you have to be realistic.”

There are already some options for i-Kiribati to migrate, through New Zealand’s Pacific Quota scheme and seasonal work programme. There has long been a discussion about whether the quota number should increase.

But the trends of how many people apply to leave their homeland for New Zealand are fickle; and those who work in this area say there isn’t a clear tie between the number of applications and the growing impacts of climate change.

At this stage, New Zealand has no immediate plans to alter migration settings for Kiribati, or other Pacific countries, due to climate change.

Currently there is a lack of data and understanding about climate-related migration patterns, and the current sensitive political nature of the discussions means New Zealand’s focus for now is on climate adaptation and mitigation projects.

The current Government has its Kiribati Vision (KV20), which talks about adaptation and building a climate component into different strategies and plans from all government departments.

And last year, it launched its first climate change policy, which focuses on safeguarding the existence of the island, emphasising the need for an all-of-government approach, and calling on the support of partners to adapt and mitigate the risks to the country.

The plan does not include migration.

“This is very offensive and shows lack of respect to the people on the ground who are doing all they can to cope, and to the Government of Kiribati that is trying hard to build a brighter future and hope for its people.”

“We can try our best to build up the islands, but in 50 years time or 100 years time, our children will still need a home,” the former Kiribati official told Newsroom.

“When it comes to that stage – and the science is very straight forward, and the time will come. And when that day comes the international community needs to have that moral capacity to help.”

Tong spoke about this issue in the 2018 documentary Anote’s Ark, which set Kiribati’s doomsday clock to between 30 and 50 years from now.

The current Government hit out the film, calling it misleading and unethical.

“This is very offensive and shows lack of respect to the people on the ground who are doing all they can to cope, and to the Government of Kiribati that is trying hard to build a brighter future and hope for its people,” Maamau told media.

Some displacement unavoidable

While climate migration is a sensitive topic for Kiribati, and has been subject of a political tug of war over the past few years, the research shows even with mitigation and adaptation measures, at some point in the future, there will be a certain level of displacement.

Papua New Guinea and Bougainville, Fiji and the Solomon Islands are already struggling to manage internal climate-related displacement, and a country with limited stable and productive land like Kiribati doesn’t have the same options when it comes to migration within its own borders.

The Kiribati Government is putting its eggs in the adaptation and mitigation basket. Photo: Laura Walters

This means countries like Kiribati and Tuvalu need to create a strategy to avoid chaotic unplanned and unregulated migration.

And New Zealand needs to figure out what part it will play when it comes to supporting the Pacific, and dealing with migration within its region.

Otago’s Wesselbaum says the current rate of warming will see climate migrants and displaced people sooner rather than later.

“This raises the question for New Zealand of how we, as an individual country, can prepare for the impact on our population, as well as our land,” he says.

In Newsroom’s second instalment of the three-part climate migration series, Laura Walters will look at the New Zealand Government’s plans to deal with climate-related migration in the Pacific.

Her travel to the Pacific was funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade through its Pacific Journalism Grant.

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