ADAM MORTON November 21, 2009
Villagers on the island of Abaiang stand in the sea where their homes used to be. Photo: Justin McManus
WHEN a coconut tree dies, the decay starts at the top. First the leaves fall, then the fruit. All that is left is a desiccated trunk, cut off at half-mast. In a low-lying area flooded with seawater, the dead palms look like natural tidal gauges, the high water mark visible on their stranded remains.
There is no shortage of them in Tebunginako, a tiny village on an outer island of the Pacific republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas).
Over the past 40 years the villagers have seen the sea rise, storm surges become more frequent and spring tides more forceful.
Eventually the erosion was so great that the village had to be abandoned. The remains of about 100 thatched homes and a community meeting hall, or maneabe, sit up to 30 metres offshore.
''The contamination of the groundwater started in the late '70s, and after that erosion started and houses started to fall into the sea,'' recalls Aata Maroieta, the 64-year-old village chief.
''The force of erosion was stronger than the sea walls and eventually the Government said, 'All you can do is relocate.' ''
It is a phrase that the 98,000 people of Kiribati are getting used to. President Anote Tong has long warned that what is happening at Tebunginako, on the island of Abaiang, is only the start; that unless there is action to cut greenhouse gas emissions and an international finance scheme to help countries such as Kiribati adapt, they will eventually be forced to leave their homeland.
"We would like to be able to build up the islands and remain here for the next century at least," Mr Tong tells The Age.
"How realistic that would be I think could depend on the resources that are available at the international level. There is no way we can do it on our own and I think that we deserve, and we demand, that the international community come to the party."
As a member of the Alliance of Small Island States, Kiribati is fighting for a deal at next month's Copenhagen climate summit that no one pretends is attainable: a cut in emissions of at least 45 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. As Mr Tong concedes, a temperature rise of this order is all but inevitable.
Perhaps more pressingly, then, Kiribati hopes for billions of dollars from the countries responsible, to help it deal with the problem of climate change.
Click for more photos Island of Tarawa.Photo: Justin McManus
Tebunginako, the money might have to be spent on another relocation. The village was rebuilt about 15 years ago, initially about 50 metres from the shore. It wasn't far enough. Each day at high tide a handful of houses and the village's biggest buildings - a dishevelled Catholic church and giant concrete maneabe - are surrounded by a saltwater moat as the sea flows in and floods what was once a fresh-water pond.
Just like the coast, the food supply is in retreat. The fresh water milkfish that once fed the entire village are long gone, and plant life is fatally overdosing on salt. Taro - a starchy vegetable that grows in groundwater pits more than 200 metres from the coast - is increasingly killed by king tides.
Each year, villagers need to head further inland to find fresh food and water, but Kiribati's 33 coral atolls and islands are skinny and average a height above sea level of only two metres. Inland only goes back so far.
''It is very difficult to find food these days,'' Mr Maroieta says. ''It makes us feel sad that there is nothing left of our village. This is the place of our ancestors and we feel threatened and vulnerable.''
Climate change alone cannot be blamed for the plight - a geological survey suggested the coast had moved 80 metres since 1964, in part due to a shifting sand bulge. But scientists say the relentless erosion cannot be divorced from global warming.
Short-term readings of sea level rise are problematic due to large year-to-year variation, in part caused by events such as El Nino (which typically causes a large rise), and La Nina (a smaller rise or decrease). The Australian National Tidal Centre reports that sea levels in Kiribati have averaged a rise of 3.7 millimetres a year since 1992. Work for the Kiribati Government suggests the rise is genuine - the main atoll of Tarawa, at least, is not sinking. But incrementally rising seas are only part of the story. Far more damaging are the extreme events that come with them.
In Australia, a 20-centimetre rise is estimated to up the number of extreme seas by a factor of 10. A 50-centimetre rise - now considered a conservative projection for this century unless emissions are curbed - is projected to bring about a 300-fold increase. Oceanographer John Hunter, a sea level researcher from the University of Tasmania, says it is reasonable to think that the impact in the Pacific - where data collection and analysis are under way - will be similar.
What might that mean? According to a World Bank report earlier this decade, Kiribati's capital of Tarawa - where nearly half the population lives - will be 25-54 per cent inundated in the south and 55-80 per cent in the north by mid-century unless there is significant adaptation. Factor in what this means for poisoning of groundwater, destruction of limited arable land and spread of disease, and you have an unlivable national capital.
"If we don't deal with the problems facing countries like Kiribati, the Maldives and Tuvalu they definitely will not survive," Mr Tong says. "And that sets the tone for what's to come. We might be on the front line at this point in time, but others will be on the front line next.
"Is it going to be survival of the fittest? I think we are more human than that. I'm sure there must be more compassion in this world than there would seem to be."
Mr Tong believes there must be a gradual, merit-based relocation program. Some of Kiribati's inhabitants will want to migrate to a country with higher ground; others will attempt to stay, at least for a few decades.
The Australian Labor Party pledged a resettlement plan for climate refugees when in opposition, but has so far been silent on details. A spokeswoman for Climate Change Minister Penny Wong says Government climate aid programs - including $150 million in last year's budget - are focused on building community resilience. But she acknowledges permanent migration may eventually be the only option for some people.
Mr Tong says there has been little response from Australia and New Zealand to his requests for a long-term plan, though other leaders have been more immediately accommodating. "The President of East Timor said, 'We might be able to accommodate some of your people', " he says.
Many villagers have little or no understanding of climate change, but say they know they are witnessing a shift: increasingly intrusive seas, as well as stronger and less predictable winds and more intense heat.
"The average i-Kiribati [Kiribati inhabitant] certainly thinks it's getting hotter," says Emil Shutz, a former government minister who now runs tours for the country's few recreational visitors. "Ten years ago they could fish all day in a tinnie, but not any more - it is just too hot."
There are parts of Kiribati where you can't see the water, most notably in the southern Tarawa hub of Betio, but the threat of climate change is consistently there. The first thing you see when you land are the sandbags that try, and fail, to stop spring tides from flooding the only airstrip. If you are forced to go to hospital, you may get your feet wet. It is regularly inundated.
The growing climate impacts are overlaid on a health system and infrastructure that are struggling at best, and estimated to be up to three decades behind other countries in the region.
Though a former British colony, Kiribati is light on infrastructure. Straddling the equator, with islands sprinkled across a chunk of ocean roughly the size of Australia, it is one of the world's poorest nations and in many places life is a subsistence existence. Only 23 per cent of adults are in paid work, yet migration to Tarawa from outer islands has surged in recent decades.
The capital is shockingly overcrowded, with about 2500 people squeezed into each square kilometre. Beaches and roadsides are covered in rubbish, hygiene is poor and health programs are under siege. One in five adults have diabetes - a reflection of changing diets and sedentary lifestyles.
Kiribati is gradually embracing solar power, but through necessity, its response to climate change is focused on adaptation. Its $6 million adaptation program, backed in part by AusAID, is carrying out a scientific risk assessment for Tarawa. But it has only $700,000 left for one or two construction projects. Kautuna Kaitara, national director of the Kiribati Adaptation Program, says the country's airstrip will be slowly "eaten away" and water supply spoiled unless there is swift action.
In the meantime, locals are forced to take things into their own hands. Albert Ientau has lived on the water's edge in Abarao village since 1982. He has continually had to rebuild his sea wall, and more. "A few years ago I went out drinking liquor," the 60-year-old recalls. "I came back and there was no house. I thought I was seeing things."
Mr Ientau is no fool - his re-built house is on makeshift stilts - but the water is lapping at is door before high tide. When The Age finds him, he is rolling giant boulders into the water in what appears a forlorn exercise to prevent it from returning.
A retired fuel delivery driver for Mobil, his attitude is a mix of pragmatism and gallows humour that reflects his homeland's predicament. "I want countries to reduce CO2 emissions," he says. "If they don't, where else will we go? If the land is sinking, we will be moving."