Island of despair held hostage by climate change

The highest point on South Tarawa, the capital island of Kiribati, exists behind a wall of sandbags and rocks. It lies so close to the sea that one of the agile children who make up almost half the population could leap from the promontory and land in the water three metres below.

The island lies 12?203km across the Pacific Ocean from Lima, Peru, where climate negotiators last month drafted a deal that seeks to control how high the sea will rise around this thin strip of sand and coral, and maybe stop the country from disappearing altogether.

Yet for most islanders, climate change remains an abstract concern against the foreground of the calamitous poverty they face. More than half of this nation’s 102?000 people live on impoverished South Tarawa. Huge families, often as many as 20 to a home, live in makeshift dwellings amid pigs and piles of rubbish.

There is no space, nor privacy. The many who lack a toilet use the beach. Children spend their days swimming in the electric-blue lagoon, which doubles as a major fishing ground and open sewer.

It is the world’s most scenic slum.

The island’s drinking water is in perpetual crisis. Groundwater wells are polluted and increasingly salinated by rising seawater. Treated government water reaches some communities, but only runs for a few hours each week.

Batiri Tataio’s family are fortunate enough to have a tin roof and a tank for collecting rainwater. But there is threat of a drought; it has rained just twice in the past two months.

It is hard to find jobs, says Tataio, and this limits the food available. Her family catches fish and sells them by the roadside to earn enough to get by. Fish and rice make up the bulk of the diet, supplemented by sugary food when people can afford it. A startling 99.5% of the islanders do not eat enough vegetables and almost a quarter suffer from diabetes.

The indignities and debilitations of poverty make international diplomacy and the conference halls such as those in Lima seem abstract. But poverty is perhaps the most important factor in determining whether a person will be killed or made homeless by climate change. The blow will fall hardest in places such as South Tarawa, not simply because of geography, but because it has no resources to defend itself against a more violent climate.

In his office at Parliament House, Kiribati’s President Anote Tong says that even if the long-hoped-for Paris climate agreement due in December 2015 codifies the most severe emissions reductions, it will have little relevance for the country.

“It doesn’t matter for us because what is already in the atmosphere will ensure that the problem we are facing will continue to happen.”

Tong is determined that at least some land and a remnant of Kiribati society will survive. But defending this fragile community will be expensive.

This is why the most vulnerable countries are demanding that rich nations contribute more to the Green Climate Fund and honour their commitment to supply $100-billion each year by 2020. The near-$10-billion pledged to date is just two-thirds of the bare minimum stipulated by developing countries. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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