© UNICEF Australia / James Alcock

Behind the 'poster child' of climate change

The island nation of Kiribati is expected to disappear beneath the Pacific Ocean within the next fifty years.

Imagine for a moment, a baby girl named Tien, born today in Kiribati – the Central Pacific nation often referred to as the ‘poster child’ for the relentless impacts of climate change.

The arrival of a new baby should bring with it joy, love and optimism for the future. What if instead it brings fear, uncertainty and the prospect of leaving behind all you’ve ever known in order to give your child a better future? This is not a hypothetical situation for people across the low-lying atolls of Kiribati, it is more and more an undeniable reality.

Newborn baby at a Kiribati Hospital
A newborn baby at a Kiribati hospital in March 2014. © UNICEF Australia / James Alcock

So what then does the future hold for baby Tien? The odds are not stacked in her favour. It’s likely that she will be the last generation of her family to grow up in Kiribati; an atoll nation scattered across vast expanses of ocean that is projected to disappear beneath the waves of the Pacific Ocean within the next 50 years.

Tien and her family, along with scores of other i-Kiribati people, will have to wrestle with the reality of leaving Kiribati and moving elsewhere - what Anote Tong, the President of Kiribati, refers to as “migration with dignity.” The reality is complex, uncertain and pervaded by an overwhelming sense of grief and loss for a nation which could be the first wholly displaced by climate change. The consensus among the people of Kiribati is that they will be leaving parts of their culture, heritage, ancestry and traditions behind on their beloved islands.

School students walking along a seawall in Kiribati
School students walk along a seawall intended to protect communities from rising sea levels.  © UNICEF Australia / James Alcock

Children playing in the waters of a King Tide in Kiribati
When a 'king tide' inundates this village, children cavort in the water, natural swimmers ducking and diving and screaming as kids do wherever they are in the world. But the flood waters aren't all fun and games: they bring the potentially deadly risk of disease. © UNICEF Australia / James Alcock

The years Tien does get to spend on Kiribati will also be fraught with inequity and inequality. Rising sea levels and coastal erosion are just the starting point for a number of daily challenges.
In the cruelest of dichotomies, Kiribati suffers from both ‘too much’ and ‘too little’ water – rising sea levels threaten the country’s existence while insufficient drinking water threatens daily life.

Kiribati cuts across the equator but is at the mercy of a dry climate and frequent droughts. Access to safe drinking water is a growing concern as rising sea water permeates scarce ground water supplies. Ground water wells, a vital source of fresh drinking water, are turning salty.

Young boy & girl standing in the water of a King Tide in Kiribati
In Kiribati, climate change is a fact of life – and often a scary one for young people wondering what the future will bring. © UNICEF Australia / James Alcock

Rising tides at Kirbati
At a glance, Kirbati can evoke the kind of tropical getaway Australians dream of. But the seeming paradise is belied by rising tides and the risk of disease they bring. © UNICEF Australia / James Alcock

In turn, a lack of fresh water also leads to dire sanitation, hygiene and health issues, compounded by a lack of toilets, high rates of open defecation and low rates of handwashing. Stagnant water supplies are the perfect incubator for waterborne diseases and diarrhea is rife.

Beyond drinking water, baby Tien’s nutrition will also be compromised; the coral and reef-based soil makes agriculture and farming near impossible, especially when the water needed to nourish crops is in short supply. Fish supplies are also dwindling.

‘Too much’ water means that even the idea of ‘home’ is a transitory concept in Kiribati. South Tarawa, the capital and hub of Kiribati, has less than 15 sq. km of usable land. In the past 35 years its population has tripled as people move from the outer islands to escape the effects of climate change. Tarawa is now home to half the country’s population, more than 50,000 people, perversely making the tiny atoll one of the world’s more overcrowded places, with a population density twice that of New York. In addition to further stressing already stretched water supplies, this has led to vast overcrowding and dangerous levels of pollution from human waste.

Pit toilet in Kiribati following a King Tide
A fingernail of coral and sand rising just over two metres high at its highest ‘peak’ is not an easy place to develop a sewerage system. Pit toilets are the norm and when the tides come in, the sewerage flows out, dramatically increasing the risk of disease. UNICEF strengthens local communities with water, sanitation and hygiene services.  © UNICEF Australia / James Alcock

Although it may be hard to imagine, South Tarawa is also an average of just 450 metres wide. When a ‘king tide’ (the local term for an especially high tide) hits, much of the atoll can be inundated with devastating waves of sea water. As a child, Tien will learn that you have to be ready to swim at any time - even when you’re asleep in bed. Because of this, Tien’s house will most likely be relocated several times as she grows, as her family attempts to escape the ever-encroaching sea. Her school may also move if it is inundated too often.

With families increasingly moving overseas, Kiribati risks losing its most skilled citizens, including teachers. For Tien this means her chances of getting a good education are even further compromised. If it seems like this is an inescapable vicious cycle that’s because it is.

Young girl in a Kiribati school classroom
Climate change is impacting all aspects of children's lives, including their chances of a good education. © UNICEF Australia / James Alcock

Throughout the Pacific region, nations are grappling to secure their futures in the face of immense challenges. Kiribati is not alone in feeling the effects of climate change – in fact there isn’t a country in the region that isn’t affected. While Pacific communities are very resilient by necessity, children instinctively sense the challenges ahead – and for a child like Tien these challenges may well be insurmountable. Development gains hard won over decades may be reversed as populations are displaced and compromised by the consequences of a problem created far away by wealthier nations.

At COP21 Pacific leaders will amplify the call for urgent climate action, not ‘later’, but now. Children like Tien don’t have the luxury of waiting for glacial change, her future is under threat today. As world leaders gather in Paris we ask what the future will hold for Tien and other children born in the Pacific region today. As the unwilling poster children for the impacts of climate change, surely we owe them better.  

Children playing in calm waters in Kiribati
One day, these children will have to face the reality of leaving their island home. © UNICEF Australia / James Alcock

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