Fearing that climate change could wipe out their entire Pacific archipelago, the leaders of Kiribati are considering an unusual backup plan: moving to Fiji.
The republic's President, Anote Tong, said yesterday that his Cabinet had endorsed a plan to buy nearly 6,000 acres on Fiji's main island, Viti Levu. He said the fertile land, being sold by a church group for about £6m, could provide an insurance policy for Kiribati's entire population of 103,000.
"We would hope not to put everyone on one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it," Mr Tong said. "It wouldn't be for me, personally, but would apply more to a younger generation. For them, moving won't be a matter of choice. It's basically going to be a matter of survival."
Kiribati, which straddles the equator near the international date line, has found itself at the leading edge of the debate on climate change because many of its 32 atolls rise just a few feet above sea level. Mr Tong said some villages had already moved and there were increasing instances of sea water contaminating underground fresh water, which remains vital for trees and crops.
Changing rainfall, tidal and storm patterns pose as least as much a threat as ocean levels, which so far have risen only slightly. Some scientists estimate that sea levels in the Pacific are rising at about 2mm a year. Many expect that rate to accelerate due to climate change. Fiji, home to about 850,000 people, is about 1,400 miles south of Kiribati. It remains unclear what people there think about potentially providing a home for thousands of their neighbours.
Mr Tong said he was awaiting full parliamentary approval for the land purchase, which he expects in April, before discussing the plan formally with Fijian officials.