Kiribati - The Land of No Tomorrow?

09 May 2019
Ms Namrata Gulati Sapra

The 33 islands of Kiribati are extremely shallow; the highest point on many of the islands such as South Tarawa is just a couple of metres above sea level. Rising ocean waters are threatening to shrink Kiribati's land area and displace its people long before the islands are submerged. However, there is silver lining in the form of the visionary Kiribati Adaption Program of the World Bank and judicious help from New Zealand and Australia.

The highest point on many of the Kiribati islands such as South Tarawa is just a couple of metres above sea level.

Not many people know about the existence of the country of Kiribati – a collection of 33 islands lying in the Pacific Ocean and even fewer know that the country could be wiped away from the face of the Earth. If predictions are anything to go by, Kiribati is susceptible to capitulating to the sea in another 50 years' time, thanks to climate change. The many detractors of the theory are oblivious to the fact that its people constantly live in the fear of displacement and a flickering hope of survival. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that all is not alright, (or in fact, far from it) in Kiribati and village Tebunginako situated on Abaiang island in Kiribati is a testimony to what the future very likely holds for the country.

The village of Tebunginako began to face a severe crisis long ago in the 1970s due to seawater inundation. Massively ravaged by climate change, the village today looks nothing like it used to once upon a time and the calamity has left an imprint on the coconut trees, which are so barren that they literally spell doom. The groundwater does not taste the same, for it has become salty. The rains take forever to pour. The fish have borne the brunt too as they are fewer in number and farther out into the sea. The villagers have passively witnessed the transformation of the village from a lush green land into a land massacred by the phenomenon scientists have been warning us about. Over the years, they have experienced and felt repercussions that the world cannot even fathom. Having lived through the frequent sea storms, rising temperatures and sea level, the survivors often speak fondly of a part of the beach that had become synonymous with their childhood.

Many such parts seem like a figment of imagination now as they have been devoured by the sea and can never be brought back.


Displacement, however, has been the worst nightmare that has come true for the people of Tebunginako. Houses began to crumble into the sea, leaving behind no trace of their existence. The sea has also wiped out a significant part of the cultural identity of Kiribati by consuming the 'manaebas' or meeting houses where 100 people or so would gather. Most villagers were left with no choice but to seek shelter on other islands. Of the 400 that peopled the battered village, a meagre 100 continue to live there, barely being able to make the ends meet. The sea coast is quickly receding as are the food supplies. The milkfish, which made a hearty meal for the villagers, have disappeared. As for the plants, they are too salty to feed on. Other vegetables that the people depended on for food are fast dying out because of the giant waves. Though the village of Tebunginako was relocated 15 years ago and a new manaeba built, this time, a little farther away from the sea, the villagers continue to live at the mercy of the sea as its waves unleash their wrath on them, making their way into the houses and the churches.

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Impending Doom in Kiribati

  • Kiribati is a collection of 33 atolls. Since they (atolls) are low-lying, they are naturally at risk to the rise in sea level and storms.
  • Kiribati is one of the first countries that is so vulnerable to climate change it is believed to become uninhabitable in future, before it submerges.
  • The President of Kiribati has made known the challenges that Kiribati faces to the United Nations.
  • Already a poor country, Kiribati could lose a major part of its GDP by 2050 because of the change in climate.
  • The reefs, which are integral to Kiribati are also at risk of coral bleaching due to the ocean waters that are growing warmer and warmer.
  • Anote Tong, the former President of Kiribati introduced the 'Migration with Dignity' programme for the welfare of the refugees of the country. He also made a provision for 6,000 acres of land in Fiji, where the citizens of Kiribati can seek asylum. He sought to highlight the issue of climate change and urged the citizens of the world to not brush it under the carpet, 'We have got to understand that climate change is not a national issue – it is a global issue, and we need global thinking. We need global leadership and that is what is lacking at the moment.'
  • Despite all the noise about providing refuge to people from Kiribati for survival, the Teitiotas from Kiribati, who have gone down in history as the 'world's first climate refugees', were deported from New Zealand, raising serious questions about providing asylum to refugees from Kiribati.
  • Most of the population of Kiribati resides on South Tarawa. There is only one road in this part of the country.
  • The vulnerable condition of Kiribati could be the world's future.

This article was published as the cover story in May issue of TerraGreen, authored by Namrata Gulati Sapra

Climate change
Climate impact
Climate refugees
Climate vulnerability