The people of Kiribati, a group of islands in the Pacific ocean
particularly exposed to climate
change, now own a possible refuge elsewhere. President Anote
Tong has recently finalised the purchase of 20 sq km on Vanua Levu,
one of the Fiji islands, about
The Church of England has sold a stretch of land mainly covered
by dense forest for $8.77m. "We would hope not to put everyone on
[this] one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary,
yes, we could do it," Tong told the Associated Press. Kiribati has a
population of about 110,000 scattered over 33 small, low-lying
islands extending over a total area of 3.5m sq km.
In 2009 the Maldives were the first to raise the possibility
of purchasing land in another country in
anticipation of being gradually submerged. At the time the
government looked at options in India and Sri Lanka.
Now Kiribati has taken action. "Kiribati is just the first on a
list which could get longer as time passes," says Ronald Jumeau,
Seychelles ambassador at the United Nations, who took part in
the international negotiations on climate change in
Bonn last month.
In March the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published
the volume on adaptation of its fifth assessment report, confirming in starker terms forecasts first
outlined by scientists in 1990. Within a few decades, small islands
in the Pacific and Indian oceans risk being
extensively or even completely submerged. In places the sea level is
rising by 1.2cm a year, four times faster than the global
The cost of protecting these places against rising sea levels,
compared with national income, is among the highest in the world.
Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Maldives are among the 10 countries where
the financial impact of climate change is the most severe.
For many of these countries, which are represented by
the Alliance of Small
Island States, the impacts of climate change are "irreparable",
as Tong has often stressed. "Whatever is agreed within the United
States today, with China [the two largest sources of
CO2 emissions], it will not have a bearing on our
future, because already, it's too late for us ... And so we are the
canary. But hopefully, that experience will send a very strong
message that we might be on the frontline today, but others will be
on the frontline next," he said in an interview on CNN last month.
This explains why small island states think it is so important to
set up an international mechanism for loss and damage, to
compensate for the irremediable consequences of global warming.
The international community approved the principle of such a
mechanism in November 2013. "When a population is forced to leave
its country, it is no longer a matter of adaptation," Jumeau
claims. "Where will these countries find funds? It is up to the
industrialised countries, which caused global warming, to shoulder
their responsibilities." He wants to make the loss and damage
mechanism a priority for the global deal on climate change slated
to be signed in Paris in December 2015.
In the immediate future, the land purchased by Kiribati will
above all be used to for agricultural and fish-farming projects to
guarantee the nation's food security. With sea water increasingly
contaminating the atolls' groundwater and catastrophic coral
bleaching - total in some cases such as Phoenix atoll - there are
growing food shortages. "Among the small islands, Kiribati is the
country that has done most to anticipate its population's future
needs," says François Gemenne, a specialist on migrations at
Versailles-Saint Quentin University, France. "The government has
launched the 'migration with dignity' policy to allow people to
apply for jobs on offer in neighbouring countries such as New
Zealand. The aim is to avoid one day having to cope with a
Kiribati has long-standing relations with Fiji. In the 1950s
families from Banaba island, who had been displaced to make room
for a phosphate mine, took refuge there, Gemenne recalls.
According to the IPCC there is as yet no proof that climate
change is the only cause of migration from small Pacific islands.
But in the most vulnerable places, islanders have few options. The
government of the Marshall islands has decided to follow Kiribati's
example. Others, such as Tuvalu, refuse to entertain the idea of
leaving their land. In either case, the radical decision by
President Tong highlights their dilemma.