Tuesday, November 11, 2008
The President of the South Pacific island nation of Kiribati has outlined an unprecedented plan that would scatter his people throughout the nations of the world before rising sea levels submerge the islands they have called home for centuries.
Kiribati was first settled by early Austronesian-speaking peoples before the 1st century A.D. Fijians and Tongans arrived around the 14th century and merged with the older groups to form a unique Micronesian culture.
President Anote Tong said that the sea level rise over the next century predicted by scientists would submerge much of the land on which they live while salinization of ground water would make even more of it uninhabitable.
Kiribati is made up of 33 islands, mostly coral atolls, that straddle the equator in the vast South Pacific Ocean.
"Most islands are so narrow that if you stand on the ocean side and shout, people on the lagoon side will hear you," he said.
In 1995, Kiribati moved the international date line to the east so it would be the first country to welcome the dawn of the Third Millennium on Jan. 1, 2000. In 1999, the tiny nation gained UN membership.
Kiribati faces oblivion because of climate change. Tong's plan to relocate 100,000 people was born of his realization that the situation is urgent. Unusual natural events such as higher tides, coral bleaching and a recent 12-month drought have already been observed by residents of the island chain.
Although Kiribati is one of the world's lowest emitters of greenhouse gases, it will be one of the first areas to feel the effects of changes caused by industrialized nations. President Tong is frustrated that those nations are interested only in the economic impact of curbing global warming. If scientists are right, his country faces a humanitarian crisis and the world refuses to notice.
"While it may be a matter of economics for some of you, for us it's not economics; it's a matter of survival," he said.
Though it may be too late to head off the sea level rise that would spell disaster for Kiribati, Tong urged other nations to take preventive measures. Kiribati has created the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, a California-sized ocean wilderness of pristine coral reefs, underwater mountains and fish populations threatened by over-fishing and climate change. PIPA conserves one of the Earth's last intact oceanic ecosystems in a nearly uninhabited region of abundant marine and bird life.
"This is our contribution to humanity. We are waiting for a contribution from any country of a piece of land so we can move to it," Tong said.
He knows that this is unlikely to happen, and that anger won't help the situation. His plan provides for groups of Kiribati citizens, perhaps 1,000 per year, to receive job training and seek skilled jobs in other countries. They would form a dispersed resource that others could turn to as the environmental situation worsens at home. Job training is important because it would allow the dispersal to occur with as much dignity as possible so that his people will not become environmental refugees.
Implementation of his plan has already begun with small groups of nurses moving to Australia and New Zealand for further training.
"Hopefully, our people will spread out so that when the time comes they will assist with the integration of the rest of the people into their communities, and also make it easier on the host countries."
I think of the many people in our own country displaced by Hurricane Katrina who became environmental refugees in one day while the world refused to notice. And I think of President Tong and his people knowing that their beloved home for thousands of years will one day lie under the ocean, their culture extinct as they try to assimilate into the diaspora of nations.
It seems that we are constantly given opportunities to help each other and to heal the earth while we respond with indifference and weak economic excuses.
I know it's naive and unrealistic, but I don't believe that any society should advance at such enormous cost to others. The industrialization of one nation should not be allowed to spell doom for another. I fail to see why scientists cannot find ways to stem climate change. If we have the technology to bring about such drastic conditions, we possess the ability to reverse them.
As self-appointed stewards of the earth, we need to make a serious commitment to protect, nurture and repair it. Now. There is no more time to waste.
The waters are rising and we are our only life boat.