For Pacific countries like Kiribati, the threat of climate change means an uncertain future for the islands, and the people that occupy them.

Until recently, there has been talk of climate refugees, and special humanitarian visas, but Pacific leaders are telling New Zealand politicians they want to stay on their land, and fight against climate change.

This has led to a change of thinking towards mitigation and adaptation measures.

One of the prime objectives of New Zealand’s Pacific Reset, launched just over a year ago, is to assist with these projects.

But the Pacific is going to need a lot more than a boost in New Zealand’s aid spending and some willpower if countries like Kiribati – often referred to as a ‘sinking’ and ‘disappearing’ nation – are going to keep their growing populations on a shrinking island.

This resolve to try and adapt – rather than migrate – has presented a challenge on an unprecedented scale, but some see this as an opportunity to change the way the world deals with climate change.

Initial designs to sustain Kiribati’s population into the future were bold and futuristic.

The former Kiribati government believed looking at futuristic underwater villages, or floating oil rigs, was one of the few choices its people had left. Photo: Anote’s Ark

Under Anote Tong’s presidency, Japanese engineering company Shimizu came up with an idea for lily pad-like floating islands. This then morphed into a type of spiralling, underwater glass village, which was designed to hold 50,000 people. Shimzu worked on the proposal for years, but it now seems dead in the water, and the Japanese company has been forced to suspend its business.

When Kiribati President Taneti Maamau took over in 2016, he came with very different ideas to Tong. Maamau rejected the former administration’s ‘migration with dignity’ mantra and instead focused efforts on adaptation.

This is where a group of Kiwi engineers with a game-changing plan come in.

“Previously, they only had migration…. they technically did not have adaptation as an option. This is a game-changing project; it’s transformative.”

It’s a little less futuristic than the Japanese plan, but if it works, it will buy much-needed time for Kiribati and all other landmasses facing an uncertain future thanks to climate change.

Jacobs principle environmental consultant Simon Liddell is clearly excited about the project.

Sitting in his Wellington office, shortly after arriving back from Kiribati, he assures me there are no ‘ifs’ – this will work.

“They have an option. It’s mind-boggling how cool it is,” he says about i-Kiribati (the people of Kiribati).

“Previously, they only had migration…. they technically did not have adaptation as an option. This is a game-changing project; it’s transformative.”

Reclaiming Temaiku

The project aims to reclaim 300 hectares (equivalent to three Wellington Airports) of land on Kiribati’s Temaiku Bight.

It will create a village sitting 2 metres above the highest projected 2200 sea level, hopefully buying 35,000 i-Kiribati another couple of hundred years in their homeland.

The project is expected to take 30 years to complete, in three main stages, and the land reclamation alone estimated to cost US$273 million ($408m).

There’s a lot of uncertainty in timeframes when it comes to the effects of climate change. But if the Government of Kiribati wants to continue to push ahead with this plan, it needs to start now.

The unmanaged fish ponds at Temaiku are prone to flooding. Photo: Laura Walters

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) began consulting on potential land reclamation in 2015. In 2016, it commissioned NIWA to look at coastal inundation and defences in Kiribati in the wider context of climate change, and in 2017 Jacobs was brought on board to carry out a detailed investigation of one site on the atoll of Tarawa and provide a full feasibility report. That report was presented late last year.

Neither New Zealand, nor Kiribati, are able to fund a project of this scale in full, so Kiribati is looking to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) financial mechanism, the Green Climate Fund.

There’s no doubt a project of this scale is risky from a financial, and social perspective, but the risks of not doing it are arguably much greater.

Modelling shows it’s highly that likely in 100 years Kiribati will essentially be underwater, Liddell says.

“The next 50 years will be key.”

More than just a piece of land

From the air, Temaiku is easy to spot – it just out from what is otherwise one long snake of a road linking the hook-shaped atoll.

From the single-shed that is Kiribati’s revamped airport, a left turn almost immediately takes you onto a causeway, with the turquoise water of the lagoon on the right.

On the left is an expansive swamp filled with fishponds, and the odd tree. A couple of locals squat by the ponds, looking for fish. Further along two young kids relieve themselves in a pond next to the road.

“But there also comes a point where we can complain and complain, or we can do what we’re really good at and adapt.”

It’s hard to imagine this land transformed into an example of Pacific urban design, with a new freshwater lens (fresh groundwater), and safe homes for tens of thousands of i-Kiribati for 200 years.

But Liddell says there’s no reason it shouldn’t work. “This isn’t a pipe dream.”

This isn’t solely a climate change project. To make the case for so much development funding, Jacobs have had to look at it from an environmental, economic, social and urban planning perspective.

Of course, some have reservations, and locals are worried about the impacts on their current foraging and fishing in the unmanaged fish ponds. They’re also concerned about an inundation of workers, and the pressure that will put on an already crowded community with scarce resources.

Kiribati’s capital South Tarawa is over-crowded, and infrastructure has always been reactive, with a lack of planning for fast population growth from the high birth rates and urban migration. Photo: Laura Walters

Currently, more than half of Kiribati’s population of 110,000 live on South Tarawa, with the urban migration from the outer islands and high birth rates putting pressure on infrastructure that has always been reactive to population growth.

But Jacobs hopes the training and employment opportunities will offset the initial influx of experts, and the long-term benefits will relieve pressure on the rest of the bulging island.

Liddell says the staging plan of the adaptation project is crucial, though it does add a little over US$40m to the total cost.

Clearing, prepping and developing the land in three stages aims to stop i-Kiribati squatting on the raised and flattened land before it’s developed – something that would be expected if a large area of easily inhabitable land popped up almost overnight. It will also act as a way to pilot the development and make any necessary changes in stages two and three.

An adaptation development of this scale is unprecedented and comes with risk, but there’s also the opportunity for Temaiku to be a centre of excellence for Pacific climate change adaptation, Liddell says.

The project has been globally recognised, winning awards, including the recent Climate Change Business Journal Business Achievement Award.

This type of land reclamation could buy Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, and other parts of the world, including the Maldives, another couple of hundred years.

It’s not a fix-all, and NIWA Pacific Rim manager Doug Ramsay says large-scale adaptation projects need to be paired with forward planning, moving roads and infrastructure away from areas known to be frequently inundated, building up natural defences like mangroves, and continuing to work on keeping warming within 1.5 degrees above industrial levels.

Meanwhile, climate resilience needs to be built up at hospitals, schools, in freshwater supplies, in sanitation systems, in communications and transport links. At the same time, new ways of growing food and raising animals need to be explored as agricultural land becomes less fertile and less available.

In terms of land reclamation, this isn’t the end for Kiribati, which recognises the potential for further adaptation projects in its Kiribati Vision plan (KV20), saying there are targeted areas in South Tarawa and Kiritimati where an additional 705 acres of land will be developed by the year 2036.

Adapt or die

An i-Kiribati former government official who spoke to Newsroom about the importance of giving his people a choice in their future says climate change has been caused by the international community.

“The tide continues to rise, and schools, hospitals and homes are increasingly inundated by storm surges. One day, the country will be under water,” says the man Newsroom has agreed not to name due to his current work situation.

“When it comes to that stage… the international community needs to have that moral capacity to help…”

But the response from the international community has never been straight forward.

Kiribati, and other developing Pacific nations, have a multitude of challenges. The impacts of climate change only add to that. Photo: Laura Walters

Liddell says the developed world should feel guilty for the part it’s played in putting Pacific homes and lives at risk.

“But there also comes a point where we can complain and complain, or we can do what we’re really good at and adapt.

“Meanwhile, we can also work on reducing emissions and create opportunities like Temaiku.”

Without a technological solution like this one, the people of Kiribati would have to migrate. Finally, they have a choice, he says.

This is the final instalment of Newsroom’s three-part series on climate migration. You can read parts one and two here.

The reporter’s travel to the Pacific was funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade through its Pacific Journalism Grant.

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