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12 Feb 2013 Sydney Morning Herald
On an average day in Kiribati we can look out across our calm and peaceful lagoons and see people fishing and going about their daily business and everything is at it has been for many generations.
But this is deceptive. We now know that we are being subjected to a gradual, creeping and insidious process: climate change. This directly threatens the future of our homeland - our people will be scattered, and the survival of our unique culture, lifestyle and even our language, may be lost forever.
It was only in the 1990s our community began to hear about rising sea levels due to climate change. Back in 1999, we assumed that we would all be climbing coconut trees to escape the rising tides which would inundate our tiny islands - but we now know it is not as simple as that.
On average our islands are only two or three metres above sea level and are often less than 800 metres across at the widest point. Early advice was that we should move away from the coast, but as the President, Anote Tong, has noted: "There is nowhere to move back to - you'll either be in the lagoon or the ocean."
What we experience are more frequent storms which attack our coastal defences and erode our precious land and crops. Whole communities have had to be relocated. Changing climate patterns have also brought extensive periods of drought, which threaten our scarce fresh water supply.
The fragile water lenses beneath each of our islands are very vulnerable to salt water intrusion. This happens when our coasts are eroded by storms, when rising sea levels intrude from beneath and when drought causes shrinkage of the lenses. On top of this we now have problems with overpopulation on South Tarawa and human-induced pollution of our water resource.
Without fresh water, there can be no life. This, along with sea level rise, is the major threat to our existence.
We became more intimately involved with the issue when our AusAID-supported video unit assisted the government with its presentation at the COP 15 conference in Copenhagen in 2009.
At that time our President said: "Climate change is the greatest moral challenge of the 21st century. It calls into question the ability of our international institutions, and our compassion as human beings, to face this issue. We cannot handle this alone."
Throughout history nations went to war when their sovereignty or survival was threatened and it was in a similar state of mind that our small platoon went, well armed, to Copenhagen. The Kiribati side event attracted a large and appreciative audience and there were many tears. We gave it our best shot.
It is therefore very difficult to describe our devastation when, in the following week, the US President, Barack Obama, and other world leaders torpedoed any chance of a binding agreement on emission levels. Their agenda was purely economic. We were left with a strong sense of anger, sadness and betrayal.
Now, more than three years later, little has changed. In the past month we have learnt that new and improved satellite technology has revealed that the oceans may be rising 60 per cent faster than the best estimates issued of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research - PIK). In the meantime the international - and donor - community calls on us to "adapt".
Yes, we accept that we must do what we can to protect our coasts and water resources threatened by pollution but serious and sustained adaptation requires major funds and some of the world's finest minds to point the way.
The majority of I-Kiribati have no wish to live in another country but mounting evidence suggests that we may soon have little choice. Therefore migration may become the key part of the way we are forced to ''adapt''.
But, there's a problem. Unlike our neighbours Tuvalu (with a population of about 10,000) we have no significant or sympathetic migration relationship or policy with any country.
The Kiribati population is more than 103,000. How will the region handle a sudden influx of such large numbers of homeless people? It needs to start now. In some ways the beginning steps are under way. With significant assistance from AusAID, Austraining and Australian Volunteers International, the government has started a program of education reform. This extends into vocational education to meet Australian standards. I-Kiribati want to migrate with dignity and contribute, rather than become a burden on their new hosts.
With regard to climate change the world chose not to hear our cry. Will it be the same with our migration?
I am a woman of Kiribati and have no wish to live anywhere else. It is my home, where my ancestors lie. But I may have no choice but to leave.