Kyodo / AP

Plagued by sea-level rise, Kiribati buys land in Fiji

Pacific island nation estimates it will be completely submerged within 30 years, displacing more than 100,000 people

Aiming to avoid a humanitarian crisis, Kiribati recently purchased land in Fiji — about 1,200 miles away — where its residents would be relocated in the event that sea-level rise drowns the Pacific island nation and displaces its population of just over 100,000 people.

With the steady creep of the Pacific along its shores, Kiribati, a collection of small atolls, already faces food and water shortages, as seawater contaminates limited supplies of groundwater for the people who live there. Some suspect that their island will be underwater within the next three decades, as sea levels rise about half an inch each year.

That might not sound like much, but the atolls that make up the country sit just a few feet above sea level, and that rise increases the risk of flooding from storms and sea swells. 

Kiribati’s government purchased the land from the Church of England for $8.77 million in late May, Inter Press news agency reported. The news is being more widely reported this week.

The strip of land is about 8 square miles in area and heavily forested, according to The Guardian. It’s not clear when the people of Kiribati might begin their migration.

"We would hope not to put everyone on [this] one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it," Kiribati’s President Anote Tong told The Associated Press, according to the Inter Press report.

With an average age of 22, the citizens of Kiribati — whose economy is dependent on phosphate mining and tourism — represent some of the most impoverished and vulnerable victims of climate change.

Contributing very little to the greenhouse gases that most scientists agree fuel climate change, Kiribati is among the least responsible for the present climate crisis.

This isn’t the first attempt the nation has made to prepare for life-threatening sea-level rise. In 2008, it began negotiations with New Zealand to relocate some of its population there. But some who try to flee face visa and work authorization challenges, common to migrants the world over.

In October 2013, one Kiribati man made an appeal to the government of New Zealand to be treated as a climate refugee. New Zealand denied his request

"Among the small islands, Kiribati is the country that has done most to anticipate its population's future needs," said François Gemenne, a migration expert at Versailles-Saint Quentin University in France, The Guardian reported.

"The government has launched the 'migration with dignity' policy to allow people to apply for jobs on offer in neighboring countries such as New Zealand. The aim is to avoid one day having to cope with a humanitarian evacuation."

Kiribati isn’t alone. Many other island nations, including Tuvalu and the Maldives, which has also eyed buying land on higher ground, face the same threat and have banded together to encourage rich, industrial countries to take action to curb climate change. 

The Marshall Islands have been vocal in this regard, having faced a long history of forced displacement when the United States tested nuclear weapons there in the 1950s. For that nation, it’s not too late if the carbon tide turns soon.

“The notion of displacement is not acceptable. If we can keep sea-level rise going up slowly, keep it at 3 feet … then we can deal with it,” Marshall Islands Vice President Tony deBrum told Al Jazeera in September.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has acknowledged the problem.

“The people of the Pacific islands know as well as anyone that we also need to prepare communities for the impacts that are already being felt,” Kerry said in a video address to a gathering of leaders from Pacific islands in September.

U.S. President Barack Obama, for his part, announced in June a conservation initiative to protect the Pacific’s coral reefs, hit hard by ocean acidification linked to climate change, as well as by overfishing and intentional destruction by humans.

The president also announced $102 million to shore up natural barriers to sea-level rise along the U.S. East Coast, parts of which are still trying to recover from the devastation levied by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

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