The highest point on South Tarawa, the capital island of Kiribati, survives behind a wall of sandbags and rock. It lies so close to the sea that one of the agile kids who make up almost half the population could leap from the top and land in the water three metres below.
Across the Pacific in Lima, Peru, climate negotiators this week are drafting a deal that will control how high the sea will rise around this thin strip of sand and coral and maybe stop the country from disappearing altogether. Yet for most I-Kiribati, climate change remains an abstract concern against the foreground of calamitous poverty they face each day.
More than half of this Pacific nation’s 102,000 people live on impoverished South Tarawa. Huge families, often as many as 20 to a home, live in cobbled-together dwellings amid coconut palms, pigs and piles of rubbish. There is no space nor privacy. The many who lack a toilet use the white sand beach. Children spend their days swimming in the electric blue lagoon, which doubles as a major fishing ground and open sewer.
It is the world’s most scenic slum.
The island’s drinking water is in perpetual crisis. Groundwater wells are polluted and increasingly salinated by rising seawater. Treated government water reaches some communities, but only runs for a few hours each week.
Batiri Tataio’s family are fortunate enough to have a tin roof and tank for harvesting rainwater. But the nation is slipping into drought – it has rained just twice in the past two months.
“If there’s no rain, no water. That means the babies have to drink the well water and we have to boil it and boil it,” she says. In September an outbreak of diarrhoea killed more than 20 children in just two weeks. Children here are nine times more likely to die before their first birthday than in the UK.
Tataio moved from the island of Nikunau so her nine children and growing brood of grandchildren could attend school. Outer islanders have no ancestral land claims in overcrowded Tarawa so Tataio’s family have built their own island from coral, rock and sand. Their toilet empties directly into the surrounding lagoon.
It is hard to find jobs, says Tataio, and this limits the food available. Her family catch fish and sell them by the roadside to earn enough to get by. Fish and rice makes up the majority of the diet, supplemented by sugary food when people can afford it. 99.5% of I-Kiribati do not eat enough vegetables and almost a quarter suffer from diabetes.
The everyday indignities and debilitations of poverty make international diplomacy and the conference halls of Lima seem abstract and quixotic. But poverty is perhaps the most important factor in determining whether a person will be killed or made homeless by climate change. The blow will fall hardest in places such as South Tarawa not simply because of geography, but because there are no resources here to defend against a more violent climate.
In his office at Parliament House, built on reclaimed land, Kiribati’s president Anote Tong tells the Guardian that even if the Lima talks and next year’s long hoped-for Paris agreement codify the most severe emissions reductions, it will have little relevance for the country.
“What strong action can happen in Paris?” he asks. “It doesn’t matter for us because what is already in the atmosphere will ensure that the problem we are facing will continue to happen.”
Kiribati president Anote Tong, photographed in December 2014
Kiribati president Anote Tong says that even if the Lima talks and next year’s long hoped-for Paris agreement codify the most severe emissions reductions, it will have little relevance for the country. Photograph: Remi Chauvin
Tong is determined that at least some land and a remnant of Kiribati society will survive. But Kiribati’s economy is 10,000 times smaller than the US and defending this fragile community will be expensive.
This is why the most vulnerable countries are demanding rich nations contribute more to the Green Climate Fund and honour their commitment to supply $100bn each year by 2020. The near-$10bn pledged to date is just two-thirds of the bare minimum stipulated by developing countries.
Yet the people here do not seem as angry at rich countries, as they perhaps have a right to be.
Speaking to Tataio, the reason becomes clear. “Climate change very hot. Only a few rains. When it’s high tide we know that it’s very high, higher than before,” she says. Children are taught climate science in schools. But many older and less educated people have limited understanding of the causes of climate change.
Asked if she knows why the sea is rising, Tataio shakes her head and laughs. “They say that maybe in 30 years maybe Kiribati will disappear. But we don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m happy always.”
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