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Project January 23, 2015

Kiribati: Casualties of Climate Change

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More than half of Kiribati’s 110,000 people live on the capital island of Tarawa. It’s a heavily developed string of islets connected by causeways in various states of disrepair. The deep blue Pacific Ocean sits on one side, the shallow aquamarine lagoon on the other. From any place on the atoll, the water is always a short walk away. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

The Republic of Kiribati, with 33 tiny Pacific islands that straddle the equator, is one of the nations most vulnerable to climate change. Its atolls rise barely more than six feet above the ocean, on average, placing much of habitable land in harm's way if sea levels rise three feet or more this century, as scientists predict.

Although Kiribati appears a tropical paradise in photographs, the hardscrabble land makes it hard to eke out a living. A dozen of its islands are deserted, receiving too little rainfall to support human settlement. More than half of its 110,000 population crowds onto the capital island of Tarawa, a rapid urbanization from outer islands that has squeezed shantytowns onto narrow strips of land. New families are forced to build on defenseless bottomlands or reclaimed land atop mounds of sand behind seawalls.

Most households have no access to toilets or reliable freshwater. Diarrheal diseases run rampant. Tuberculosis and leprosy are spreading. Climate change complicates Tarawa's troubles, with experts predicting an inevitable diaspora.

What are the obligations of wealthier nations to help the poor uprooted by natural disasters in a warmer world? The 1951 UN Refugee Convention does not recognize those displaced by climate change—a position one Kiribati farmworker is challenging in New Zealand's courts. So far, judicial authorities have rebuffed him, declining to expand the scope of international law. To do so, one justice wrote, would open the doors to "millions of people" facing "hardships caused by climate change."

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