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Nr. 92, 21.10.2017  voriger  Übersicht  weiter

The announced demise

The heavenly island nation of Kiribati in the South Pacific is at risk of sinking because of the changing climate. Social geographer Silja Klepp from Kiel University has investigated the strategies of the country’s government to react to this threat and to create a liveable future for its inhabitants.

Foto: Thinkstock

Sooner or later there will be climate refugees, there is no doubt about this. Not only are the sea levels rising in the wake of climate change, but climate models also forecast that the intensity and frequency of tidal waves will increase, making coastal regions that are currently densely populated, uninhabitable. Other regions, such as the Middle East or Africa, are threatened by persistent dry periods and droughts, which are increasingly making the lives of the local populations more difficult.

Among the nations that are directly at risk from rising sea levels is Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas), which consists of 32 island atolls and is located in the South Pacific between Australia and Hawaii. “According to the forecasts for the rise in sea level, the islands will be uninhabitable in the medium to longer term,” says Professor Silja Klepp from the Department of Geography at Kiel University. This may be the case within 30 years, or it could ‘even’ take 50.

Silja Klepp (centre) at the market in Savusavu, during her research visit to the island of Vanua Levu, Fiji. Foto: private

While climate change is still questioned by some in other regions, the threat has become very tangible for the people in Kiribati. Time and again, severe tidal waves flood their houses, which are often built close to the sea, and cause massive damage. More and more land is lost to the sea. Coral bleaching, which is also related to global warming, means the end of the formerly abundant fish life. The increasing water temperature is causing corals to bleach and die. This may mean the end of entire coral reefs, which fishes turn to as a food source and shelter for their young. And this in turn affects fishing and food security.

What’s more: “The fresh water resource under the island, which is essential for supplying drinking water, is also increasingly under threat because of the heavy storms,” says the ethnologist leading the working group on social dynamics in coastal and marine areas. “Kiribati is a country that is very much under threat by climate change. It also tries, however, to find solutions for its population,” emphasises Klepp, who lived in the region for about a year to do her research.

Moving away for good could be the long-term solution. The government has already prepared a migration strategy for all citizens of the country to prepare for this scenario. This strategy is called ‘migrate with dignity’ and comprises climate adaptation projects such as building dams or relocating villages from areas that are particularly at risk. Its mainstay is an educational offensive, however, which aims to facilitate the migration process for the population. In addition to improvements to English language training, this also involved, for example, the standardisation of technical degrees at the Kiribati Institute for Technology.

On top of this, Kiribati initiated collaboration with Australia to train nurses and set up several harvesting support programmes with New Zealand. The government has already bought land on the Fiji islands to prepare for the worst. “Fiji is the only country that committed to taking the people of Kiribati in case of emergency, not as refugees, but as their Pacific brothers and sisters,” says Klepp.

With this measure, the former president not only secured a potential place for his people to go, but also added fuel to a more fundamental debate regarding new rights and policies for migration caused by climate change or environmental damage. He reminded people over and over again, also in the international arena, that ‘climate justice’ aspects must be considered. After all, Kiribati and actually all of Oceania has contributed extremely little to climate change and is now very much affected. With this argument, he tried to get financial resources and also to create the opportunity to migrate with dignity and not as refugees.

“This is a great worry for the I-Kiribati, that they might end up as refugees, and they have no lobby. In Kiribati, this affects about 110,000 people. This is still a relatively small number. But I think that looking for general solutions beyond building higher walls and the like is very interesting, when you take migration policies in the region as well as here in Europe into account,” explains the scientist, who works at Kiel University’s priority research area Kiel Marine Science (KMS), and also deals with Mediterranean migration as her second main field of research.

Kerstin Nees
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