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Climate change could kill my islands' culture - Pelenise Alofa


Water supplies are contaminated and sea levels are rising – and the rainy season is more extreme than ever. This is the reality of life on a small island as the climate changes

MDG : Tarawa Climate Change Conference (TCCC
On the 9th of November 2010, the Tarawa Climate Change Conference (TCCC) began, with over 40 international guests witnessing the unique dances of Kiribati following their arrival at the venue. Illustration: Tarawa Climate Change Conference

Kam na mauri, warm Pacific greetings. My parents were born on the island of Banaba, which is a part of the Republic of Kiribati. Like nearly everyone on that island, my parents were forced to relocate to Rabi, Fiji because the British mined it so badly and extensively for phosphate that they could not live there any more.I was born in Rabi, but I now live in South Tarawa, which is home to 50,000 people – about half the total population of Kiribati. It wasn't always like this – in the last 20 years, the population of Tarawa has grown from about 11,000 people.

Many people have come in from the outer islands in search of education, employment and for hospital visits. This has put a lot of pressure on our environment and infrastructure. Many of our people live in poverty because we lack the basic infrastructure to support such a large population in such a small space. We cannot go swimming along most of the coast because it is too polluted from people using it as a toilet. So for these reasons, our people are very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Water is our biggest problem, and is a major barrier to development. There are three sources of water – from boreholes, rain and water purified at the government plant. But no one wants to drink the water from the borehole because it is contaminated from people burying their dead all over the island, and from our waste. We're also seeing the gradual salinisation of the bore water with sea-level rise. At the moment it is only affected by the king tides, but in the coming years it will get worse. Rainwater supply is not very widespread because most people don't have an iron roof or cannot afford a storage tank.

With an average of only one money-earner between each extended family earning about AUS$60 a week, most people cannot afford to connect up to the government water supply either. The government does deliver water, but it takes such a long time – I ordered some two weeks ago and I'm still waiting!

As a result, a lot of families turn to the borehole, which makes them very sick, and many end up in hospital. This is really costly for our society because the little money that we do have gets spent on bus fares to and from the hospital.

As well as the lack of water, we also now face the problem of too much water in the wet season. Last year our wet season was more intense than I ever remember – it rained every day for four months. And in places there was flooding, and climate change will only make it worse.

As a result of all these problems, our government has started to develop plans to relocate most of the population to Christmas Island, which is higher, larger and cleaner than Tarawa. I am glad that our government is now starting to be proactive about climate change, and I hope that we can make the most of the opportunities at the Tarawa climate change conference this week.

My message for the delegates at the Tarawa climate change conference (TCCC) is that they must give us hope. They must give i-Kiribati – my countrymen and women – the hope that we can continue to live on our islands. They are negotiating on an issue that is a matter of life and death. When I say death, our people will not die, but our culture and way of life will die and that scares me.

The government should be seeking adaptation funds quickly. Currently the government is only working on climate adaptation projects on public property. The government should be seeking community adaptation through the UNFCCC processes, and the funding should reach the people who are suffering at the grassroots level.

That is why I've been working with the climate change campaigning organisation,, and other NGOs to run a youth and community climate leadership workshop over the last few days. The workshop will end with a support march of hundreds of locals to the TCCC, where we will urge the government to continue to stand strong and call for an international climate treaty that will limit warming to 1.5C, and sets a target concentration of carbon emissions to 350parts per million, because that is what is safe for our people.

If the TCCC can achieve these things then it would be a step in the right direction for our people.

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