Losing Paradise: Sea Levels Rise to Perilous Levels in Kiribati


Buariki Village, North Tarawa, Kiribati—“Way back in the old days, at the end of our island, we used to have a village, where my husband and his parents used to live. Their home is no longer there. It has gone underwater. Looking across to the peninsula, at the corner of the village, all that land has gone underwater, down to the playing field that was eroded,” said Mereana Marouea, the wife of the village councilor in Buariki Village, North Tarawa, in the island Republic of Kiribati. Mereana’s village, like many in Kiribati, has been significantly damaged and partially submerged as the sea level continues to rise.

Kiribati is a small island nation consisting of 32 coral atolls and one phosphate island in the South Pacific, located roughly between Hawaii and Fiji. As a result of global warming, sea level rise has threatened the livelihoods and culture of the people on the islands, and the very existence of Kiribati as a nation, which may be submerged within the next 50 years.[i] In addition, Kiribati is one of the least developed countries in the world, and is barely able to meet its peoples’ basic needs, let alone adapt to the severe damage caused by this destruction. Over the past twenty years, the rising sea has inundated entire villages, submerged water wells, and killed many of the crops and natural resources that the i-Kiribati rely on for subsistence.

Over the summer of 2014, I had the opportunity to live with two families in the outer villages of Kiribati where I conducted anthropological research. My work analyzed how the drastic changes in the environment have affected the daily lives and cultures of the families on the islands, and how their cultural networks facilitated adaptation to these changes. The people of Kiribati have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to the changes using local resources, and have demonstrated a sense of sharing through their maneabas, or village social and leadership networks, that has allowed most people to remain on the islands for the present moment. However, Kiribati, a tiny island nation, with a population of just over 100,000, should not need to face these changes alone. A large part, if not all, of the responsibility for adapting to global warming lies in the hands of the developed, industrialized nations.

The “king tides,” which are especially high seasonal tides, in combination with tropical storms, have created destruction that has progressively worsened. Just this past month, the impacts of Cyclone Pam in the Pacific region have altered the landscape dramatically, flooded the country’s single hospital, and shut down the single causeway that connects the villages of Betio and Bairiki, the two commercial centers in South Tarawa.

Most of the families I visited and lived with practice subsistence-based lifestyles, relying on coconut, breadfruit (a starchy, tropical plant), taro, and the daily catch of fish. In the outer islands, people live in beautifully woven thatched huts near the sea, with little electricity and running water. As the sea continues to rise, however, many families have had a much more difficult time remaining self-sufficient. The coconut and breadfruit trees are dying, the taro pits have been inundated, and many of the narrow, freshwater lenses that supply the drinking water on each atoll have been infiltrated with saltwater.

Many families now rely on imported rice, flour, canned meats, and noodles for survival, yet do not have the financial access or opportunity to earn the income needed to make these purchases. Women and families on the outer islands were formerly able to exchange their woven roofing, mats, and other products at village stores for staples to supplement their daily harvests, but as the sea continues to rise, the materials needed to make these products have nearly disappeared. As a result, there is a growing class of formerly subsistence-based villages on the outer islands who are now forced to rapidly transition into a cash-based economic structure.

These changes have created significant adaptations in the islands’ maneaba culture, which is the village leadership system and extended family network in each village. The maneaba, in most villages, now serves as a facilitator for climate adaptation projects, and a distributing network for the diminishing resources. It is this very village network, however, that is the most threatened as the seas continue to rise.

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