Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
Well, I started a post on Kiribati, but when it was half written I found Andi Cockroft had beaten me to it with his post. His analysis was fine, but I had a different take on the events. President Tong of Kiribati says the good folk of the atolls are again looking for some place to move their people if they have to. However, this time, it’s different. This time, they’re not blaming it on sea level rise. This time, they’re not talking about suing the industrialized nations. And this time, they’re making their own plans, they’re not waiting for the world to act. The headline in USA Today says:
Pacific nation may move entire population to Fiji
Figure 1. The island nation of Kiribati, which is comprised of the Gilbert and Phoenix groups and the Line Islands. I call it the world’s biggest tiny country. The Kiribati EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) is the eighth largest in the world … and it is 99.99% ocean.
Let me comment that if I had a chance to pull up stakes in Kiribati and move to Fiji, I’d do it in a second. Fiji is high volcanic islands, with rich soil and lots of it. And Kiribati, on the other hand, is tiny coral atolls with … well … nothing. Life on the atolls is tough, tough, tough. The highest point on any of the atolls of Kiribati is about 3 metres (10 feet) above sea level, and there is no real soil, only lime coral sand. It is a testament to the ingenuity and perseverance of humans that anyone lives on the atolls at all. The people from Kiribati are great folks, consummate seamen, and very interesting people in general. The ones I’ve known have been great folks. Don’t cross the women, though, bad mistake, the women will clean your clock if you cross them, that’s one of the reasons I like them so much.
But the fact that life is tough in Kiribati is not the reason that they’re talking about moving. And indeed, although the report mentions climate change, the President of Kiribati actually didn’t blame rising sea levels. The article goes on to say:
Fearing that climate change could wipe out their entire Pacific archipelago, the leaders of Kiribati are considering an unusual backup plan: moving the populace to Fiji.
Kiribati President Anote Tong told The Associated Press on Friday that his Cabinet this week 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 $9.6 million, could be insurance for Kiribati’s entire population of 103,000, though he hopes it will never be necessary for everyone to leave.
“We would hope not to put everyone on one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it,” 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 atolls rise just a few feet above sea level.
Tong said some villages have already moved and there have been increasing instances of sea water contaminating the island’s underground fresh water, which remains vital for trees and crops. He said changing rainfall, tidal and storm patterns pose as least as much threat as ocean levels, which so far have risen only slightly.
Now, before getting into the story, a few facts. First. name of the nation is pronounced “Kih-rih-bas”, with the accent on the first syllable. Why the strange spelling? Turns out that’s how you spell “Gilberts”, the old name of the islands, in the local language. There’s no “s” in the language, so they use “ti” for the “s” sound, based on how “ti” is pronounced in “motion”. Also, as in many Pacific missionary-derived orthographies of the local language, there are no
diphthongs consonant pairs in the Kiribati language. So the “lb” in “Gilberts” becomes “rib” because … you guessed it, no “l” in the language, so they use “r” instead. So in Figure 1, you see that “Christmas” in the local language is spelled “Kiritimati”. Also, the people are called “i-Kiribati”, with the “i” pronounce like “ee”.
Returning to the idea of the i-Kiribati moving to Fiji, curiously, that would not be the first historical intersection between the people of Kiribati and the people of Fiji. In the early days of WWII, it became obvious that the Japanese would invade one of the Gilbert Islands called “Ocean Island” or Banabas. The Gilberts were British at the time, as was Fiji, so the Brits decided to act.
Basically, the British took all of the inhabitants of Banabas Island, and moved them lock, stock, and fishing lines to the island of Rabi in Fiji. Rabi is a beautiful island, and it is ruled domestically not by the Fijians, but by the Rabi Island Council. It’s like a little bit of Kiribati in Fiji, almost everyone on the island is i-Kiribati. So this would not be the first group of i-Kirbati to resettle in Fiji.
Nor would it be the first move by i-Kiribati away from the Gilberts group. The Phoenix group of islands were settled in the late 1930s by people from the Gilberts group. This occurred as a direct result of what would become a recurring problem—when atoll populations intersect with modern medicine, overpopulation is not far off.
As a result, the obliging British, who likely felt some responsibility, gave the Phoenix group to be settled by the i-Kiribati. They settled the islands between 1938 and 1940. But the water was bad and scarce. Communications were hard, as was transportation, and the war made it worse. In 1952, after a series of dry years, the experiment was declared a failure.
However, of course, by then there was no room for the Phoenix folks back in the Gilberts. Besides, by then there were newly overcrowded islands in the Gilberts too, people keep having kids. So … the Brits were looking for people to work on the plantations in the Solomon islands. In the early 1950s, they gave Wagina Island and land on Gizo Island in the Solomons to anyone willing to sign up for the Solomon Islands Settlement Scheme. Many of the folks who emigrated were from the Phoenix Islands, where poor water sources and a drought had combined to make the islands uninhabitable. Compared to that, the Solomons were a paradise. Except for the malaria, of course.
Drought has long been the bane of Kiribati. When your only water comes from a small lens of fresh water renewed only by rain, it is a matter of life and death. There is a fascinating report by some National Academy of Science folks, published in 1957, of their researches in Kiribati in the early ’50s. It was very clear, even back then, that droughts were a huge issue. Among many other interesting things they say are:
As for the rainfall, the attached graphs will show how it varies between the groups in the North, Central and South Islands (Fig. 4). One of the most important ecological factors in the Gilbert Islands is drought. These islands are periodically affected by it. There was a two-year drought in 1917-1919, a three-year drought in 1937-1939, and another which lasted a year and a half in 1949-1951. These periods of drought particularly affect the south islands. Comparative statistics in Figure 4 show the’ monthly rainfall of one island of each group over a period of 4 years, comparing periods or normal rainfall with periods of drought which occurred from August, 1949 to December, 1950.
And here is their Figure 4:
Tarawa, the middle row, is the capital of Kiribati. Like the other islands, it depended entirely on rainfall for drinking water. Look at what happened in 1950 to the rainfall in Tarawa … yes, that would definitely cause problems. You can see why the British were wanting to move people in the early 1950s, they’d been dying of thirst on some of the atolls. Plus the population on the atolls was already very high. The NAS report says:
It would seem that the Gilbert Islands, where the soil is so poor, and which suffer from recurrent severe droughts, should have a small population. We observe, on the contrary, a very high demographic density. The population of the sixteen islands of the Group amounted at the time of the 1947 census to 27,824, or an average density of 243.9 per square mile. This figure is just given as an average and does not claim to have any great demonstrative value as, in fact, the density varies considerably as between one island and another. Thus Tamana has 441.5 per square mile while Aranuka has only 61.3.
But of course, moving folks from the Gilberts to the Solomon Islands didn’t solve the population problem either. To understand why it made no difference, here’s a historical look at the population of Kiribati
Figure 3. Kiribati population change over time. I picked the photo because for me it exemplified the irrepressible spirit of the i-Kiribati people. Population information is from the FAO and the NAS report cited above.
Remember that in 1947, people were already commenting on the high population density … and now the density is three times as great. So you can understand why the President is looking for more land. Here’s another bit of information. The article says that they want to buy a 6,000 acre parcel in Fiji. In Texas, that would only be a small ranch.
But that land in Fiji is nearly 10% of the total area of Kiribati, and nearly 15% of the inhabited area of Kiribati. So I understand why they want to buy it.
You can see the danger. The population is skyrocketing. And unlike just about every country on the planet, there is absolutely no sign of any slowdown in the Kiribati population growth rate.
But the rain … the rain is unchanged. It’s still years of wet and then years of dry, just like always … but when you have three times the people, the dry years become unsustainable. President Tong correctly notes “increasing instances of sea water contaminating the island’s underground fresh water”. He does not note the obvious reason that the well water is becoming brackish—there are three times the people drinking from each and every well, while the rainwater recharging the wells hasn’t changed.
As a result, I fear there is no obvious solution. Buying land in Fiji in 2012, while it is a good stopgap measure, will do no more to solve the underlying problem than did exporting people to the Solomon Islands in 1954. There is only one solution to their problem, and it has nothing to do with CO2, or the climate, or the industrialized nations, or the sea level. The people of Kiribati have to, must, reduce their birth rate.
I understand that there are issues of religion and social pressure and the like, but look at the blue line in Figure 2. Kiribati is already busting at the seams with people, and the rate of population growth is not decreasing … they will be lucky to come out of this without huge social, economic, and political problems. So I wish President Tong the best of luck in his efforts to reduce some of those problems.
And if anyone can pull it off, it would be the i-Kiribati. Let me close by quoting the 1950s NAS report again:
Another aspect of their nature is their total confidence in others, both in moral and material dealings. We also appreciated their independent spirit and their frankness, which is often disarming. Their answers, whether positive or negative, are always direct. But the Gilbertese’ forthrightness does not preclude a form of respect devoid of obsequiousness. His often unexpected reactions are never arrogant, and are a corollary of his independent, individualistic nature, as are his teasing spirit and fanciful mind. Both are expressed in choreographic attitudes, in which mimicry always has a deserved success.
Finally, these people have a highly-developed artistic sense, and it would be difficult to find anything to equal some of their extraordinarily beautiful choral singing, It is really in their dances and choral singing only that the Gilbertese express the whole genius of their race, and can give rein to an exuberance which, because of a surprising modesty, is no longer manifested in the ordinary course of their everyday life.
The Gilbertese are an intelligent people. Many show real pride in having risen above the general level, but it did not seem to us that this was ever expressed in a contemptuous or even haughty way. Those working with Europeans are generally avid to learn and to understand everything and are full of gratitude for whoever may have increased their knowledge, even about their own territory.
Yeah, that’s the i-Kiribati I know. Interesting, good-natured, hardworking folks. I wish them only the best.
PS—Population density in Kiribati is currently about 750 people per square mile. If they were all moved to the land in Fiji as the headline claims, the population density there would be about 11,000 per square mile … by comparison, Bangladesh has a density of about 2,500 per square mile. So whether they buy the land or not, they won’t be able to move everyone there.