TARAWA, Republic of Kiribati—“The biggest question we are facing is whether it makes sense to spend resources on development for a country that will be underwater,” said Kiribati President Anote Tong.
Kiribati's president spoke on the challenges of meeting his people’s basic needs while also mitigating the destruction associated with rising sea levels at a meeting for local government leaders and island mayors. Though Kiribati has few resources, community-based development projects are helping villagers in the isolated islands adapt to changes caused by sea level rise.
The Republic of Kiribati, a series of 32 low-lying coral atolls and one phosphate island in the central Pacific, has an average elevation of less than three meters, making it especially vulnerable to any change in weather patterns and rising sea levels. The sea has infiltrated drinking water wells, inundated local crops and food sources, and it has forced families to rebuild houses further inland. Many are worried as the tides continue to rise faster than communities can adapt.
Kanawa Itinibara, 45, the village councilor for Kainaba Village, on the north end of Tarawa Island, is concerned because the seas inundated part of his village earlier this year.
“The village maneaba [meeting place] was flooded. Many breadfruit trees have died,” he said, “Many coconut trees have been uprooted. We asked for shoreline protection from the government for these areas but the help hasn’t come yet.”
The higher rising tide that Itinibara has noticed in his village is common across the islands, but the changes have become more drastic in the past few years.
“It is more frequently seen now, and it is always a concern whenever the tides start to come in,” he said.
In addition to a changing living environment, villagers have felt the economic impacts of the rising seas. On the outer islands of Kiribati, life is mostly subsistence-based. Many families live off the land and the sea, mostly eating fish, breadfruit, coconut and taro. Women can exchange woven thatched roofing and mats made from the leaves of the pandanus tree for imported products.
As the sea level rises and the storms become more severe, these trees have been dying, making it harder for women and families who rely on the weaving for income, according to Merina Buraieta, the assistant social welfare officer for North Tarawa.
“People cannot collect the pandanus leaves for creating the thatch. The leaves are wet which makes it harder to make the thatched roofs and weavings. People sell this in the village, and they can’t when it continues to rain for long periods,” she said.
Adapting to these changes has posed challenges to the economic and social development of Kiribati, which remains one of the least developed countries, according to World Bank classifications. This creates a dilemma for the Kiribati government, which must choose to allocate resources for either development projects or climate change mitigation programs, but struggles to address both.
President Tong has been active in raising international awareness on the challenges his people face and has enacted a countrywide adaptation program, but the government has limited resources.
Mr. Choi Yeeting, a climate change project advisor at the Office of the President of Kiribati, said, “You have to note that our government and people do not have all the resources to fully address the struggle against climate change. We must be able to accommodate assistance—technical and financial—by donor agencies and bilateral partners.”
Despite the challenges faced by community leaders in Kiribati, both independent and government-operated community-based development projects have helped communities adapt to the rising sea level while also providing some economic support for villages.
As Kiribati villagers struggle to adapt to the changes, Ahling Onorio, 61, remains optimistic. The soft-spoken, yet passionate former schoolteacher has established a social enterprise to help villages affected by sea level rise through the production of organic virgin coconut oil.
Onorio provides training for villagers in the outer islands in the production of coconut oil, coconut sugar and syrup. The profits from the venture help with the children’s school fees and maintenance for the equipment.
“We are a social enterprise that deals with community empowerment,” she said, “We sell our products now in about 50 shops. The proceeds from the sale, part of it, goes into the women’s school fees. It helps the whole family. We pay upfront the school fees so that the children are not sent away,” Onorio said.
She started the enterprise, Kiribati Organic Producers, in 2011, with the support of the Secretariat of the South Pacific. Onorio launched the education fund, which she’s named the “Sugar Scheme,” to ensure that the children of the families she works with are able to receive an education.
“Education is free up to Form Three, and after that you need to pay for yourself. There are government-assisted students who make the mark, but there are others who just pass the cutoff but they do not get this assistance from the government,” she said. “We have a scheme to assist them with school fees. We have a limited capacity, but for the ones we know who need to pay the fees we try to work with them and we train them.”
Kiribati Organic Producers works with the community maneaba, the traditional village leadership system, to organize the training and production of the coconut products.
“When you go you want that support. And the maneaba is always there. So there is the elder council and the religious groups, and depending on what maneaba you work with you comply with their customs,” she said.
Onorio also insists that the growing and processing of the coconuts is organic.
“We have to be organic—our water lens and everything we depend on depends so much on the good quality of the water and the soil,” she said.
Keeping the water lens, the small underground reservoir of fresh water, and the soil clean is a main concern for organizations and governmental projects in Kiribati because the few available resources are at risk as the tide continues to rise.
A waste-management development project known as the “Green Bag Project” works through the private sector to ensure that waste is properly disposed to avoid the contamination of drinking water and food sources.
Kiribati has no government-run waste collection or processing service, so the waste often ends up in the ocean or scattered on the land. The problem is especially noticeable in South Tarawa, where the population density is as high as some parts of London.
This waste poses a public health threat and pollutes the seawater, where a majority of residents collect shellfish, according to Teirirua Bwatee, 42, the Green Bag project coordinator at the Federation for the Peoples of the South Pacific-Kiribati (FSPK), the organization that operates the project.
“It used to be all organic waste, but with the coming of all these new foods and imported foods in plastics, they start to generate the real waste,” he said, “Because it’s new for our people, they don’t know how to handle this type of waste, and it stays in the water and on the land.”
Mr. Bwatee manages the project with the financial support of the New Zealand government. The end goal is to create a self-sustaining enterprise that serves the community without needing the aid from New Zealand, he said. Currently, residents purchase bags at 20 cents each, which includes the collection of the waste.
“In the future we hope to run the whole system through the sale of the bags. We’re trying to determine the right price for the bags that will allow us to do this,” he said.
Similar projects have been effective in adopting a community-based approach to implement and sustain climate adaptation. The Kiribati Department of Agriculture and a non-profit, Live and Learn, have encouraged villages to establish community and household gardens to provide food security in areas affected by sea level rise. The produce from the gardens provide vegetables for families whose food supply has been damaged by salt water, and, in the future, the surplus harvest will be sold in the market, creating income for the village.
The Department of Agriculture currently runs a program that provides individuals with farming tools and organic farming workshops as part of becoming a member of the Department’s farmers group. The program also organizes produce-growing competitions to encourage families to maintain their gardens and award a prize to the family with the best produce.
Tekinati Ruuga, 54, runs her own garden through the support of the Agriculture Department and is hoping to do well in this year’s agriculture competition in North Tarawa. She wants to set an example for her community by growing her own produce and relying on fewer imported foods.
“To me, I love to make the garden because I know that it’s very useful…I think that in our village they [the villagers] want the vegetables but they don’t know how to do it,” she said. “If I keep on doing this, all of my village people will see and then ask. I also share with them. If someone wants this kind of work, I can help them and if they need the seeds, I give them out.”
A community-learning farm was established in Tebunginako Village by the nonprofit Live and Learn. The group worked with the village to plant both short-term vegetable crops and longer-growing fruit trees in the village, with the goal of ensuring that the village is self-sustainable as the seas continue to rise.
“The household gardens are small, but now we are eating from them. It’s not enough yet but we are eating it,” said Otimoa Kabunare, 55, a Tebunginako Village elder.
Live and Learn established a community learning farm in Tebunginako Village in November 2013. Live and Learn is based in the Pacific and works to mitigate the impacts of climate change through community-based development projects.
Live and Learn established a committee through the village maneaba system to ensure that the farm is locally managed and the village remains self-sufficient.
“We get training from Live and Learn on how to use different types of planting, what to uproot, and which crops will bear fruit. This knowledge was all new to us,” Kabunare said.
The community gardens provide local food for villages that were previously relying on imported rice, flour and noodles, which are often too expensive for families and not as healthy as the local produce.
The farming projects encourage the use of local planting and composting techniques to preserve the cultural traditions on the islands, while at the same time keeping gardens organic and making them more affordable.
Often locally-developed solutions allow families to adapt to the damage caused by climate change while keeping the costs affordable. Sea wall construction in Kiribati uses a combination of traditional plants and trees, seashells, and sand to prevent shoreline erosion and flooding caused by the high tides. Coconut leaves are layered on top of seashells and sand and are held up by shrub trees and coconut-wood posts. Mangroves are planted in front of the houses to protect the shoreline and prevent the sand from going out with the tides.
These solutions, known as “Soft Solutions,” absorb the impact of the waves without as much of a risk if the wall is damaged, because the materials are easy to find and naturally occurring. The soft solutions do not require outside contractors and are an affordable way for families to slow the damage caused by the waves, according to Amon Timan, a senior community-engagement officer for the third installment of the Kiribati Climate Adaptation Project.
“The soft solution is absorbing—it absorbs and contains the force of the waves, and there’s not as much of an outflow. It’s the same with the mangroves,” he said. “It is affordable. All you need is a change of mindset from the people. The first thing people do when they build a home is clear the land. We are trying to encourage people to leave the plants, and teaching the value of keeping the plants,” Timan said.
Most of Timan’s work currently focuses on drinking water security for the islands, but at his own home in Tabituea Village, he and his family have created a sea wall. Timan encourages his neighbors at community and church meetings to keep their shrub trees and mangroves to prevent shoreline erosion and damage to their land.
“Now all members of my household are learning the value of keeping the plants,” he said. “You have to keep on nourishing the wall with the palm leaves and planted shrub trees… When we came, they were going to cut the mangroves out, but I said, ‘No no! Leave our mangroves there.’”
“We live in harmony with our environment, we respect our environment, and that environment will protect us,” he said.
The local solution is often the only option for many families, because the government only has the resources to provide concrete walls for shared community spaces in the villages, not individual households, according to Daenia Tibwere, a schoolteacher trainer in Abaokoro Village.
The community-based adaptation programs in Kiribati villages have brought temporary solutions to the destruction caused by climate change, but because there are few resources available, these projects have not yet reached all the affected islands. Many of the projects that depend on good harvests and clean water remain vulnerable to the rising tide as the sea inundates the land. However, they have provided a way for the Kiribati people to remain on the islands until a more permanent resolution is developed.