Kiribati: The island at the edge of the world

Far from being victims of climate change, the inhabitants of Kiribati are fighting back with resilience and tenacity.

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Men in a dingy ask to be pulled back to the break wall by young people swimming in the Betio jetty during the late afternoon [Conor Ashleigh/Al Jazeera]

Most coverage of Kiribati evokes a sense of the acute vulnerability of this nation: coconut palms with exposed roots clinging to eroded coastlines, angry waves crashing against sandbag seawalls, the ocean seeping into people’s homes.

It has become an international symbol of vulnerability – on the edge of the world and at the end of the line: a nation doomed in the face of climate change.

But, an insight into the daily lives of the people of Kiribati (I-Kiribati) reveals a story less often told: one of strength and resilience.

Although global processes are driving social and environmental change and generating a wealth of challenges, I-Kiribati draw strength from their connection to country and culture. This helps them to cope with both present development challenges and future climate threats.

A man fishes with a net in Bikenibeu, South Tarawa island of Kiribati [Conor Ashleigh/Al Jazeera] 

The ocean, viewed as a source of sustenance and connection, has shaped I-Kiribati culture and traditional knowledge, and is intimately linked to people’s daily survival.

The wealth of tuna fisheries in Kiribati’s Exclusive Economic Zone is also a significant opportunity, and – if managed sustainably – holds the key to Kiribati’s economic future.

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Water: too much and too little 

When flying into the capital island, South Tarawa, the fragility of the nation is immediately apparent: a sliver of land, arching across a lapis lazuli ocean, surrounding a turquoise lagoon.

Kiribati, comprising 32 low-lying coral atolls and one raised coral island, is, by all informed accounts, vulnerable to climate change.

Women and a young girl leave a shop after an early-morning downpour causes flash flooding [Conor Ashleigh/Al Jazeera] 

However, on arrival, it is apparent that developmental issues constitute the most immediate challenges confronting the country.

The one sealed road that runs down the centre of South Tarawa illustrates the rapidly growing population: youth in brightly coloured school uniforms parade along the roadside, avoiding the puddles on their way to school.

Half of South Tarawa is under the age of 18, and the rising population is placing unprecedented pressure on social services and infrastructure, including the provision of fresh water, and sanitation and waste management systems.

A car badly eroded by salt in Eita village [Conor Ashleigh/Al Jazeera] 

The consequences of these developmental challenges are felt at the household level, and people struggle daily to find enough food, fresh water and income to meet the needs of their extended families.

Fresh water is scarce. On South Tarawa, the Public Utilities Board rations water. It flows for roughly two hours a day to each village. That is when families can fill their buckets and drums.

The water cannot be turned off, except by the public utility workers, as the taps are no longer connected. They once were, but overconsumption reduced the pressure to a trickle, causing people to dig directly to the pipes.

The mains water is treated, but it is easily contaminated by muddy backflow. After the water is collected, buckets and drums often remain uncovered, increasing contamination risks.

Water contamination has led to Kiribati having one of the highest infant mortality rates in the region, and only relatively wealthy families can afford rainwater tanks.

Tales of strength and resilience 

Despite the daily challenges, I-Kiribati rarely dwell on the hardships. The traits of resilience and resourcefulness have evolved in response to the highly variable climate, and coral sands that support a limited variety of food crops.

Survival has always been tough but egalitarianism, expressed through a culture of sharing both inside and outside of the family, has provided an effective social security net. But such light-heartedness does not detract from the I-Kiribati’s deep concern for the future of their country.

The ability to make the most of the resources that are available, and the wealth of traditional fishing and navigation skills, contribute to the underlying strength and resilience of the people.

Taste preferences are changing towards imported foods, but fish and marine resources constitute the primary source of protein and remain a mainstay of the diet. Traditional coral-rock fish traps can still be found on South Tarawa, fanning out over the fringing reefs, and traditional fishing and navigation skills remain highly respected and relevant to people’s daily lives.

Forty-year-old Moaniba Ratitaake, left, is a fisherman and supports his family by selling his catch. He lives on land owned by his wife’s family in Eita village on South Tarawa Island. But while he could once drive all the way to his house, for the past few years most of the land has remained underwater during high tide. Moaniba plans to build more seawalls but concedes that this will only be a short-term fix for what will inevitably be uninhabitable land [Conor Ashleigh/Al Jazeera] 

An elderly woman on South Tarawa described the skill and knowledge involved in traditional fishing: “The husband would ask the wife, ‘What would you like to eat?’ And the wife would reply: ‘The red fish, the trevally, the milkfish, the bonefish’, you know? Or they would say: ‘I want to eat a shark.’

“The traditional fishermen know exactly where to go to catch that fish, and when to catch it – what time of the day. They know the depths for the fishing line – how many fathoms deep to go – and they know which kind of fish they will get on their line. They say: ‘100 fathoms, this fish, 80 fathoms, this fish’ and so on. And they set the bait for that kind of fish. So, they just go for the specific fish and come back.”

Blaming the big ships

In the past, it was possible to catch enough fish to feed a family from the lagoon and from the ocean-side reef on a shallow tide. But these days, even out on the open ocean it can be difficult to catch enough fish to meet the needs of a family.

A fisherman from Marakei atoll, north of Tarawa, explained this growing challenge: “Before, I would go out fishing and when I came back I would have big fish, like six or seven of them or something like that. And we had plenty all the time, not only our family, but all over the village. And now there are big changes, there are not many fish and sometimes we don’t get any fish where we used to, especially the big fish like the yellow-fin tuna.”

A fisherman on a small canoe fishes near an overseas fishing vessel. The government of Kiribati has sold licences to commercial fishing fleets from South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, the United States and Spain [Conor Ashleigh/Al Jazeera] 

Local fishermen are not naive about the cause of depleted fish stocks. Foreign commercial fishing operations come from places as far flung as the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Europe. The lights of the enormous fishing vessels glimmer on the horizon at night, sometimes for weeks on end.

A fisherman from Marakei said: “We blame the big foreign ships that come to fish in our ocean – they fish out all the big fish because they have big nets, and they just take any fish they catch in the nets.”

These often subsidised foreign fishing fleets are dangerously efficient at catching tuna, and their productivity has increased in recent decades. They use sophisticated sonar radars fitted to fish aggregating devices, which send out signals when fish are in close vicinity. Enormous nets are then used to capture entire schools of tuna, including juvenile fish and by-catch such as pelagic sharks, rays, turtles and birds.

Just one foreign fishing vessel can store up to 2,200 tonnes of fish in its freezers. This is equivalent to roughly one third of the annual catch of the small-scale commercial fishing industry in Kiribati.

Illegal fishing and under-reporting of fish catches is common, yet it is beyond the resources of the government of Kiribati to effectively monitor its 3.5 million square kilometres of Exclusive Economic Zone.

Distant-water fishing fleets are taking too much, and this is pushing several species of tuna, including Bluefin, Bigeye and Yellowfin, to the brink of collapse.

Bargaining power 

The increased demand for tuna in the central and western Pacific oceans has been caused by the depletion of tuna stocks in the eastern Pacific. Roughly half of the world’s skipjack tuna is now caught in the waters of the western and central Pacific Ocean, an industry worth an estimated $6bn a year. Only 6 percent of the value of this fish benefits the resource owners, while 94 percent of the value is realised outside of the Pacific.

Even so, fishing licence fees directly comprise almost half of the revenue of the government of Kiribati. As aid funding is largely dependent on maintaining good relations with distant-water fishing nations and as the government depends upon this revenue, it has – in the past – had little bargaining power to negotiate higher fishing access fees, fearing the loss of market share to countries charging lower fees. In 2014, however, the parties to the Nauru Agreement, including Kiribati, agreed to increase fishing access fees from $6,000 a day to $8,000.

It is difficult for countries to act alone, but united, the Pacific Island nations can address the overfishing crisis. The sustainability of tuna fisheries in the western and central Pacific Ocean depends on drastic and immediate measures, vigilance and cooperation among the nations of the region.

A fisherman carries some of his catch home in Bairiki village, South Tarawa [Conor Ashleigh/Al Jazeera] 

Several Pacific Island countries are taking up this challenge, with Palau announcing plans to place a ban on foreign commercial fishing within its Exclusive Economic Zone and to establish a domestic commercial fishing industry with access to 20 percent of its waters.

The government of Kiribati has also demonstrated its commitment to sustainable tuna management by closing off the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) – one of the largest marine protected areas in the world – to commercial fishing. While regulation and enforcement remain challenging, the government has established a trust fund for managing the area. Closing PIPA to commercial fishing provides an opportunity for the regeneration of tuna in and around Kiribati’s waters.

In addition to marine conservation measures to address the depletion of tuna stocks, the government is also taking action to address climate change, both by pushing for strong global mitigation agreements and by implementing adaptation measures at home. Its adaptation approach focuses on incorporating climate change and disaster risk considerations into all planning and development processes, to help Kiribati cope with an uncertain future.


Rohwati pumps kerosene into an old lantern that his son, Uriti, will take fishing with him. Uriti learned how to fish from his father. The men of the family fish two to three times a week, for about two hours a time, to secure enough food for the family and to make a little money from what is left. Uriti says it is becoming increasingly difficult to catch big fish without going out to sea. He and his father believe that the lack of fish is a direct result of the large number of commercial fishing vessels now operating just off the coast of South Tarawa [Conor Ashleigh/Al Jazeera] 

The goals outlined in the Kiribati Joint Implementation Plan on Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management are aligned with the Kiribati Development Plan (2012-2015), and aim to integrate and coordinate climate change and disaster risk considerations to build resilience across all sectors.

The largest adaptation project in the country aims to improve water security by reducing leakage in the mains water supply, increasing rainwater harvesting capacity and installing other drinking water infrastructure.

The KiriWatSan Project is improving water security from the ground up, by addressing sanitation and hygiene issues at the village level.

The government also released a Population Policy and Implementation Strategy to address overcrowding, which threatens water security through overuse.

Alongside these adaptation and development strategies, the government established the Coalition of Low Lying Atoll Nations on Climate Change, comprising Kiribati, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, whose goal is to push for an effective global agreement on climate change and draw attention to the threats climate change poses to atoll nations.

Marina Burataake and Kabwebwe Benateti, both aged 12, collect firewood with their aunt. The strain placed by the overpopulation of South Tarawa island means that the family must regularly travel by bus to the area near the airport in order to collect enough firewood to cook [Conor Ashleigh/Al Jazeera] 

‘A future for our children’

Global forces of change are taking their toll on the island nation of Kiribati, but there is clearly cause for hope, and this hope lies in the people, and their commitment to building a future for the generations to come.

As one government employee explained: “The strength of Kiribati is the people. I can use myself as an example. I feel strongly for what we are doing in this country. The people care. The donors come and go, but we care [about] what is happening to the country and take it to heart, because we want a future for our children. Our cultural identity is still very much intact compared with many countries, which I think is also a source of strength for our people.”

While the depletion of tuna stocks threatens food and economic security, and global climate change threatens water security, people meet these challenges daily with the resilience and tenacity inherent in I-Kiribati culture. I-Kiribati are not passive victims in the face of social and environmental change.

The future of their nation is uncertain on a number of fronts, but both the strength of cultural identity and the government’s determination to find sustainable solutions to the management of its marine resources demonstrate that Kiribati is not a doomed nation, but one that is dynamic and fighting.

Uriti wades across the shallow ocean night fishing. He uses a kerosene lantern to stun the fish moving past on the incoming tide [Conor Ashleigh/Al Jazeera] 

Annika Dean is a doctoral student researching climate change adaptation finance in the Republic of Kiribati. She has conducted four months of fieldwork in Kiribati over 2012 and 2013, in which time she interviewed government representatives, donors, civil society and communities about climate change adaptation and other issues and challenges.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

This article first appeared in the September 2014 issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine.
Source: Al Jazeera