In the island nation of Kiribati, the story of creation starts with Spider, but is completed by Eel, Octopus, Turtle, and Wave. The children of Sand are pulled together and above the children of Water and the land is created.
Now, the water is rising again.
In Kiribati, ‘baki-aba’ (translated to ‘land hunger’) is the rush of the sea as it eats up the atolls of the 33-island nation. Along with other Pacific Islands, Kiribati is experiencing drastic impacts from the chaos of climate change. The latest predictions of sea levels say that they could rise five to six feet by 2100: The islands of Kiribati lie barely six feet above sea level.
The physical loss of land is not the only problem with the rising of the ocean. The groundwater of Kiribati is being contaminated by salt water, and solutions such as desalinization or buying drinking water are expensive for the small nation.
For the past several years, leaders of the nation have been working towards finding solutions for the long-term, when their land is completely eaten by the sea. The president who started this push, Anote Tong, bought 6,000 acres of land in Fiji, which is higher above sea level and has less chance of erosion. Other attempts have been made at finding ways to help Kiribati. Artificially building islands or raising the coastlines have been suggested, but these would be expensive and make it less feasible for residents to stay. Inhabitant-built sea walls and other protections are also have detrimental effects, as they shift the erosion to other areas of coastline.
If people have to move, the government is encouraging ‘migration with dignity’, hoping that those that can will move away before becoming climate refugees. The pocket of land the government has bought may help with this, especially because other countries are proving loath to accept asylum applicants from Kiribati.
The problematic nature of the term ‘climate refugee’ emerges from the Geneva Convention itself, where the definition of the term ‘refugee’ is as follows:
‘Owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.’
The issue here is the idea of ‘persecution’. Climate refugees, although in need of aid, are not technically being persecuted under the terms of the Geneva Convention. Although work is happening towards creating a contemporary definition, the issue of granting asylum will continue to be difficult under current definitions. Many on the deciding end of climate asylum decisions are finding it difficult to make a decision on this front, especially as conflict refugees are a priority in many parts of the world. For the Pacific Islands, New Zealand and Australia are the main deciders, as they are the ones who will likely take on a large number of asylum-seekers in upcoming years. The precedent set by allowing a person fleeing climate events might mean that in the future everyone will be classified as a refugee, and protections become limited when they’re spread that wide. The hope is that global leaders will create a usable definition soon.
Even if islanders are able to move, it is not that easy. Their identities are tied to the interactions between the water and land.
“What threatens us is the sea. I love the sea, because it provides us with food, it’s part of our lives. But now, we see it as something that will take away the most important part of our life, which is the land. Land here is the most precious thing. It’s where you build up your home, raise your children, and live your life.”
-Maneteata Ruotaake, Marakei Island
Sources and Further Reading
Ives, Mike. “A Remote Pacific Nation, Threatened by Rising Seas.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 July 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/03/world/asia/climate-change-kiribati.html.
“Kiribati Climate Activists Want More from Australia and New Zealand.” Radio New Zealand, 12
Sept. 2018, http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/366282/kiribati-climate-activists-want-more-from-australia-and-new-zealand.
“Kiribati Island: Sinking into the Sea? – BBC News.” BBC, BBC, 25 Nov. 2013, www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-25086963.
Reuters. “Five Pacific Islands Lost to Rising Seas as Climate Change Hits.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 10 May 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/10/five-pacific-islands-lost-rising-seas-climate-change.
United Nations. “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.” UNHCR, http://www.unhcr.org/uk/3b66c2aa10.