In April and May I spent two months in Kiribati undertaking field work toward my PhD. Kiribati is an island nation made up of 32 atolls (and one raised limestone island) with a total land area of 800 km2 spread over 3.5 million km2. To put that into perspective, on a ratio basis it is equivalent to chopping Cairns into 33 pieces and scattering it across Australia. I was in awe when flying in that people had found their way to these tiny pockets of land in the middle of the Pacific, and survived for thousands of years. My next thought was that due to anthropogenic climate change Kiribati is in danger of becoming uninhabitable into the future.
The purpose of my fieldwork was to consult with communities who have had climate change adaptation projects implemented, as well as stakeholders responsible for their implementation. This was done to understand how climate change is impacting locals, figure out if projects are indeed increasing community resilience to climate change, and identify ways these can be improved into the future. These adaptation interventions include a range of measures from conservation activities, education, coastal protection, food security, and water security to name a few.
My time was spent between two islands: the capital, South Tarawa, and Abaiang. The contrast between the two islands is stark. South Tarawa, home to 56, 000 people (just over half the country’s population) has one of the highest population densities in the world. There are a host of subsequent development issues with solid waste sprawled across the island, high rates of non-communicable diseases, and open defecation to name a few. These issues dominate in South Tarawa and shine light on the range of concerns, outside of climate change, that Kiribati faces. In contrast Abaiang has a population of only 3,000, people. Here people rely more heavily on the land and sea for their livelihoods, with the influence of globalization less evident. The natural beauty, welcoming locals, and relaxed lifestyle on Abaiang was greatly appealing. A highlight was heading out with local fisherman and watching them free dive to enormous depths, and catch a plethora of fish, octopus, eels and clams.
Talking with the local I-Kiribati people it became obvious that climate change is a dominant concern. I was shown parts of villages that had severe coastal erosion, places where bwa bwai pits (a local root vegetable) could no longer be grown due to salt water intrusion, experiences of hotter temperatures and less predictable rainfall patterns, water shortages, and a community forced to retreat due to coastal erosion and inundation. While interventions are necessary to help these communities adapt, evidence from my time suggests an urgent need to improve the effectiveness of such projects. There were remnants of sea walls that are no longer standing, abandoned rain water tanks, garden plots no longer in use, and infrastructure left to deteriorate. Hopefully the results from my time here can provide a step forward in improving outcomes of these projects.