Paradise lost: climate change forces South Sea islanders to seek sanctuary abroad

After years of fruitless appeals for decisive action on climate change, the tiny South Pacific nation of Kiribati has concluded that it is doomed. Yesterday its President, Anote Tong, used World Environment Day to request international help to evacuate his country before it disappears.

Water supplies are being contaminated by the encroaching salt water, Mr Tong said, and crops destroyed. Beachside communities have been moved inland. But Kiribati – 33 coral atolls sprinkled across two million square miles of ocean – has limited scope to adapt. Its highest land is barely 6 feet above sea level.

Speaking in New Zealand, Mr Tong said i-Kiribati, as his countrymen are known, had no option but to leave. "We may be beyond redemption," he said. "We may be at the point of no return, where the emissions in the atmosphere will carry on contributing to climate change, to produce a sea level change so in time our small, low-lying islands will be submerged."

President Tong, a London School of Economics graduate, said emigration needed to start immediately: "We don't want to believe this, and our people don't want to believe this. It gives us a deep sense of frustration. What do we do?"

Kiribati – a former British colony called the Gilbert Islands – is home to 97,000 people, most of them squeezed into the densely populated main atoll, Tarawa, a chain of islets surrounding a central lagoon. Along with other low-lying Pacific island nations such as Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and Vanuatu, it is regarded as one of the places most vulnerable to climate change.

Erosion, caused partly by flooding and storms, is a serious problem in Kiribati, which straddles the Equator and International Dateline. Most of the land is as flat as a table. "We have to find the next highest spot," said Mr Tong. "At the moment there's only the coconut trees." But even the coconut trees are dying – casualties of an unprecedented drought. The country has had next to no rain for the past three years and meanwhile the freshwater table is being poisoned.

Mr Tong was in New Zealand – which was chosen to host the UN's World Environment Day after committing itself to becoming carbon neutral – for talks with Helen Clark, the Prime Minister, whom he hopes to persuade to resettle many of his people. But he also appealed to other countries to help relocate i-Kiribati.

Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, said of Kiribati's plight: "It's a humbling prospect when a nation has to begin talking about its own demise, not because of some inevitable natural disaster... but because of what we are doing on this planet." The world must find the "collective purpose" to combat climate change, Mr Steiner said. "Unless everyone... on this planet takes their responsibility seriously, we will simply not make a difference."

New Zealand already has a substantial population of Pacific Islanders, but absorbing another 97,000 would strain its generosity. Besides, that is just Kiribati. A report by Australian government scientists in 2006 warned of a flood of environmental refugees across the Asia-Pacific region. New Zealand is already experiencing significantly increased levels of migration from affected countries.

President Tong said he was accustomed to hearing national leaders argue that measures to combat climate change would jeopardise their economic development. But he pointed out that for Kiribati "it's not an issue of economic growth, it's an issue of human survival". And while scientists were still debating the degree to which the seas were rising, and the cause of it, he said, the changes were obvious in his country. "I am not a scientist, but what I know is that things are happening we did not experience in the past... Every second week, when we get the high tides, there's always reports of erosion." Villages that had occupied the same spot for up to a century had had to be relocated. "We're doing it now... it's that urgent," he said. "Where they have been living over the past few decades is no longer there. It is being eroded."

The worst case scenario suggested that Kiribati would become uninhabitable within 50 to 60 years, Mr Tong said. "I've appealed to the international community that we need to address this challenge. It's a challenge for the whole global community."

Leading industrialised nations pledged last month to cut their carbon emissions by half by 2050. But they stopped short of setting firm targets for 2020, which many scientists argue is crucial if the planet is to be saved. For Kiribati, it may already be too late.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'