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Story Publication logo January 23, 2015

Kiribati: Exile by Another Name

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As the low-lying island nation of Kiribati edges closer to a climate change end game, what will...

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Four-year-old Aberam Maerere plays on the concrete block corner of a house that was claimed by the sea. The community of Te Bikenikora has lost dozens of homes in recent years to erosion and the advancing sea. The local church has elevated its foundation by 18 inches so parishioners could stay dry at high tide. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

A cold New Zealand rain pelted the broad, weathered face of the man from the tropical Pacific. He squinted up at the gathering storm before refocusing his attention on crates of freshly picked Chinese cabbages, carefully adjusting and wrapping them to make sure they would arrive at market in perfect condition. Over the years, such attention to detail and dependability has elevated him from field hand to foreman of a vegetable farm on the outskirts of Auckland. Typically, Ioane Teitiota (pronounced Tess-ee-yo-tah) reports to work every day, for eight-hour shifts or longer, though he takes an occasional Sunday off. "Some people say it's hard work," he said. "I say it's good for me and my family."

Teitiota was born on Tabiteuea atoll, one of the 33 tiny islands scattered across a vast expanse of the central Pacific that belong to the Republic of Kiribati (Keer-ree-bahss). The country reaches across 1.35 million square miles of ocean, but all its islands combined add up to just 313 square miles, a landmass the size of Kansas City, Missouri. The nation's atolls formed millions of years ago around what were once the rims of sunken undersea volcanoes. As the seas rose and dormant volcanoes sank under their own weight, reefs of living coral grew toward the light and produced enough rubble and sand to form land. The lone exception is the raised-coral island of Banaba, which peaks at 266 feet, the nation's highest point. (Banaba was left defaced by the British, who strip-mined its rock phosphate for nearly eight decades before they finally abandoned it and the other islands when granting Kiribati its independence in 1979.)

To think of these islands as emerging from the sea with lush green hills like Jamaica, Maui, or Tahiti gives the wrong mental picture. Kiribati's atolls, including Tabiteuea, are stitched together by squat, narrow strands of sand severed by intertidal channels that connect the surrounding deep blue ocean to a shallow aquamarine lagoon in the middle. It's hard to find a place more than a few minutes' walk to the water's edge, in any direction.

Straddling the equator about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, Kiribati has seen fresh groundwater grow scarce and fish catches decline under the demand of a booming population expected to double before mid-century. Without replenishing rains, the thin lens of depleted groundwater turns brackish. More than half of Kiribati's 110,000 people now live on the capital island of Tarawa, a proportion steadily increasing with more arrivals from outer islands seeking cash, jobs, and better schools for their kids. (It's culturally taboo to refuse the request of a relative, so households pack dozens of extended family members under one roof and bed down on woven floor mats.) The capital's shantytowns are bulging and sprawling onto reclaimed or low-lying land vulnerable to inundation whenever wind-driven waves arrive with the highest tides.

But the worst has yet to come for this desperately poor and isolated country. Kiribati, whose land averages little more than 6 feet above sea level, is on the list of places most vulnerable to rising oceans. Water expands as it warms, and the world's swelling seas are being deluged with glacier melt; once they rise 3 feet or possibly more this century, as most climate scientists predict they will, Kiribati will suffer even greater erosion and flooding than it does already. As this happens, it will likely become one of the first countries to face an exodus of people due to climate change.

The rest of this story is available in the January/February print edition of Foreign Policy. Read online at the magazine's website.

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