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Climate Change

Climate change is one of Kiribati's most pressing issues.

Climate change is a challenge which impacts not only the environment but also affects economic, social and political development. Adapting to these changes puts a strain on natural resources.

The impacts of climate change to the very sustainability of the atolls of Kiribati is very real. Both the short-term economic weakness as well as the long term viability and future of the nation needs to be addressed.

Climate change has an impact on a range of basic human rights. These rights include:
  • safe and adequate water and food
  • health and housing
  • adequate standard of living
  • security of a person

Kiribati has broadcast its concerns effectively to the world but large adaptive measures have barely begun.

Kiribati is extremely vulnerable to climate change because of its small sizes, low lying topography, limited resource endowment and because it is economically undeveloped. This implies that Kiribati would not be able to adjust to the adverse impacts of climate change without serious repercussions to the national socio-economic circumstances and that some of the atolls would not be able to support human habitation.

Kiribati's severe difficulties cannot all be laid at the door of climate change. Overcrowding, unemployment, dwindling fresh water, ramshackle roads and houses and disease negatively impact Kiribati. The impact of climate change might be the tipping point which in combination with these already severe problems may devastate Kiribati.

Environmental stress symptoms

The wealth of a country is usually assessed by GDP which is generally the sum of human activities based on environmental resources. This constitutes the livelihood of the people which in turn determines their wellbeing. Wellbeing is reflected in the level of cultural values, health, peace and prosperity.

In Kiribati, the low level of GDP per capita reflects population increase, the poor natural endowment of the country and environmental stress factors.

Environmental stress symptoms include deteriorating coastal zone, coral reef, fisheries, fresh ground water and biodiversity. It also includes inadequate urban services such as water supply, sanitation and overexploitation of natural resources.

Environmental stress factors diminish opportunities for earning a livelihood and makes the people poorer. It also impacts on health by increasing the prevalence of diseases such as diarrhoea and malnutrition.

The degraded environment can result in eroding cultural norms due to attitude change towards the natural environment and subsistence livelihood.

Climate change and its impacts have exacerbated these environmental stress factors.

Settlement, land and coastal area

Climate change affects the processes of coastal erosion and accretion (the deposition of sediments to parts of the beach, or in sand bars formed on the lagoon platform) and these in turn threaten the village institution.

In some instances parts of the village need to be relocated. This has implications on the uses of the land and also sometimes conflicting claims over resettled land. This in turn may threaten the village institution.

Erosion and accretion in Kiribati are not new. However, traditional methods of counteracting erosion appear to no longer be effective as the erosion becomes more extensive, intensive and persistent.

Erosion is an expected impact of sea level rise and threatens existing roads and buildings which requires them to be protected.

This is done by the Government for public assets and by their owners for private assets. The protection is usually in the form of sea defence of various designs and constructions but none of the sea defences have been totally effective. Due to climate change, existing causeways and seawalls need upgrading and strengthening. In many cases they need to be extended or erected to counteract the storm surges or extra high spring tide that cause flooding of residential areas.

Traditional houses have raised floors and this design has proved beneficial in times of flooding. Where flooding leads to erosion or is persistent people have to relocate as a form of adaptation.

Increasing urbanization in South Tarawa is also causing changes to the shoreline and exacerbating the vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. There are many challenges to combating climate change such as squatters, unclear rights between landowners and land leased by the Government, enforcement of the planning system and relaxing of tenants conditions for Kiribati Housing Corporation houses.

Increased public awareness of climate change impacts and guidelines on coastal zone uses can hopefully influence individuals in how they pursue their lifestyles whilst at the same time avoid causing irreversible adverse effects on the environment and ecosystems.

Fisheries

Fish is the principal food for Kiribati people as there is little land for agriculture.

Climate change can result in coastal erosion, increased/more intense sunlight and sea level rise.

Coastal erosion results in sedimentation of coral reefs and increased load of particles suspended in the sea columns. This is unhealthy for corals and fish stocks.

Intense sunlight has affected the corals and caused some corals to die. The health of coral reefs is associated with fish abundance and overall reef productivity.

Any temperature increase in inshore waters can affect movement of fish. Drought is associated with low productivity of inshore fisheries.

Certain fish stocks, including shell fish, are depleting. Overfishing is generally considered as one of the causes but the overall situation is being exacerbated by the climate change effect.

One of the greatest scourges of global warming is coral bleaching. Bleaching can be caused by disease, sedimentation, pollution, salinity changes and increased temperatures. The end result is large areas of coral dying.

Coral are the geographical building blocks on which all atolls are based. They also provide for fish and attract tourists. Without them atoll nations would die.

Much of the present coastal erosion is the result of sand mining. Sand mining also causes the destruction of large areas of mangrove trees.

Sand banks are held together by the mangroves and protecting the coast from waves. These areas also provide shelter for marine animals.

Agriculture

Climate change will have huge impacts on agricultural systems in Kiribati because very few agricultural crops can grow on atolls.

The adaptation strategy is to strengthen traditional agricultural systems via diversifying systems and crops. This includes establishing gene banks, introducing new crops and exploring the feasibility of commercial processing of traditional tree crop products.

Coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) is one of the most valuable trees in Kiribati as it is relied on for food, shelter and the cash earning activity of copra cutting. The coconut tree is the preferred agricultural tree as it is a cash crop. Uprooted coconut trees are often a sign of coastal erosion and signifies that landowners are losing part of their land and livelihood.

The other main tree of value in Kiribati is the pandanus tree (Pandanus tectorius). The fruit of the pandanus tree is considered to very nutritional however it does not provide cash earning potential. Due to the lack of cash potential many species of pandanus have been lost and this further limits the few varieties of agricultural food in Kiribati.

Pandanus fruit can be prepared into long term preserved food and this is beneficial in times of drought.

The pandanus root systems protect soil and coastal erosion. The reduction of pandanus trees diminish the capacity to adapt to adverse impacts of climate change.

Climate change through its impacts of sea level rise leads to coastal erosion, more frequent damaging storm surges and sea water intrusion. This effects productivity. Increased air temperature and drought conditions also reduce agricultural productivity. Other crops such as breadfruit, banana, and bwaibwai are also affected.

Climate change is affecting giant swamp taro cultivation in two ways. More frequent droughts increase the salinity of the freshwater lens and more extreme high tides and coastal erosion lead to saltwater intrusion where seawater enters the cultivation pits.

Water resources

A ground water lens exists on the atolls and provides the main source of potable water. These lenses are extremely fragile and in many areas very limited in size. Water lenses are the primary long term water storage facility for many people. The quality and salinity of the lens is dependent on rainfall and the width of the land.

Climate change will affect precipitation and the width of the land (through erosion and accretion) and these in turn determine the availability of the lens.

The northern atolls have higher rainfall than those at the south but the more southerly islands tend to be wider.

Available ground water within the atolls is limited and insufficient to meet the need of the people.

Ideally ground water wells are best located away from the villages to minimize exposure to leaching of pollutants and contamination during heavy rain. People find it convenient to have ground water wells within the village. Most households prefer to have a well dug out at their own house plot. Having to fetch water from a well outside the village area will not be attractive nor it is in always practical.

Climate change projections are for increased precipitation but the intensity and intra-annual variability are unknown. This implies that reduced ground water resources can still be expected with the scenarios of increased precipitation.

More frequent and higher level storm surges also threatens the water resources by over-topping the lenses with sea water. This causes the lens to be contaminated by saline intrusion and the lens can take a long time to recover.

Additional to climate change issues, risks to the lens from domestic sanitation practices can be quite significant.

Physical assets

Large sums of public funds and external financial aid have been spent on constructing public assets including roads, government buildings, wharves, jetties, causeways, airfields, schools, training centres, hospitals and public corporations’ properties. As well as this, a large investment has occurred in protecting these physical assets from climate change problems such as coastal erosion and storm surge risks.

The design of many of these structures had not taken into account the effects of climate change. Some of these assets were established in the early 1900s such as village sites and roads.

The main roads on all the atolls run along the shorelines usually on the landward sides of villages. Erosion first affects the village area. People respond by protecting their houses but if this fails they move to other sites and this leaves the main road imminently exposed to erosion. The road will eventual require rebuilding on the remaining portion of land.

Public assets such as government buildings and infrastructure for water and sanitation systems need protection from erosion.

Private and community assets include commercial, industrial and residential buildings, church establishments and mwaneabas need the construction of seawalls to protect them.

Some coastal areas threatened by erosion have been protected via sea walls but all need regular upgrading or maintenance against the natural deterioration from the dynamic equilibrium of wind, current and wave forces at the shoreline. Costs of the maintenance or replacement will increase with time.

Biodiversity

The levels of biodiversity in Kiribati is limited.

At the species level some organisms may be endangered or already extinct. This include pandanus trees (Pandanus tectorius) with about a quarter of the species affected, breadfruit trees (Artocarpus sp.) one species affected and bwabwai root crop (Cyrtosperma chamissionis) with two species out of 20 impacted.

The loss of biodiversity in food crops directly affect peoples livelihood. It also causes worries about genetic loss which could result in poorer quality of food and health of the people.

All trees, plants and other organisms have useful functions in providing raw materials required in various aspects of life in Kiribati. A decrease in the level of biodiversity causes further impoverishment and endangers the sustainability of human habitation.

Loss of biodiversity has unfavourable implications on the adaptive capacity of the atoll system. If the natural environment and ecosystems are resilient to the impacts of climate change then this aids in maintaining the status of biodiversity.

Islets or motu act as models for bigger islands of Kiribati atolls. On several islets coastal erosion is occurring, coconut and pandanus trees are water stressed and the ground water lens is becoming brackish. Terrestrial plants and trees disappear – a loss of biodiversity specific to the motu. Eventually the motu becomes uninhabitable.

Biodiversity is important for the successful adaptation to climate change.

Health

Human health is the result of all downstream effects of the impacts of climate change such as agriculture, fisheries, water supply, coastal areas, biodiversity resources and waste management.

It is possible that with climate change Kiribati temperatures could prevail at a range that would be more conducive for the mosquito species responsible for dengue fever and increase the prevalence of this disease.

Diarrhoea can be a reflection of poor quality water and sanitation. Higher rainfall expected from climate change may increase flooding runoff into unprotected wells and increase the incidence of diarrhoea.

The rate of ciguatera poisoning in Kiribati is high. The disease is the result of consuming reef fish that have been contaminated by ciguatoxins. It is expected that the rise in temperatures will increase the incidence of ciguatera poisoning. Also, reef disturbance has been linked to ciguatera outbreaks.

However, the secondary effect of ciguatera poisoning is how people respond to the increased risk. For instance, people may change diets, decrease protein intake, increase household expenditures to obtain substitute proteins as well as loss of revenue from reef fisheries.

There are also indirect public health effects of climate change. This includes increases in malnutrition due to losses of subsistence agriculture and fisheries and deterioration in standards of living due to impacts on primary sectors.

Adaptation

Adaptation is any activities that either reduce adverse impacts of the global warming or assists in adjustment of Kiribati people's lifestyles to accommodate the adverse impacts.

Planning for adaptation is complex as there are non-climatic factors which could either negatively or positively affect the ability of Kiribati people to adapt to climate change impacts.

Three forms of adaptation to climate change have taken predominance - accommodation, protection and retreat.

A fourth adaptation option is external resettlement but this represents failure of the human race to use and manage the global environment wisely.