Rising sea levels are already forcing thousands of South Pacific residents to leave their homes. But what happens when an entire country has to relocate?
SUVA — Mary Meita is on the first floor of a white building in Suva, the capital of Fiji. The 33-year-old looks through the barred window. Rain falls on the courtyard, the street and the palm trees. This is not her land, but it could one day become a new home for her people.
Meita works for the Embassy of Kiribati, a small republic made up of various small islands some 2,000 kilometers away from Fiji, scattered in the middle of the Pacific Ocean — at least for now. How long the nation's tiny atolls and reef islands continue to be inhabitable is an open question.
Three years ago, Kiribati's government bought land — more than 2,000 hectares — on the much larger Fiji Islands. It was a difficult decision, but the president decided it would be better for the republic's 115,000 citizens to plan resettlement now, with their dignity still intact, than wait until the imminent disaster.
The sea had taken over.
Kiribati is overpopulated. But that's just part of the problem. It's also being threatened by rising sea levels. Cemeteries near the beach are already flooded. Only the crosses rise out of the water. The coastline is washing away, and salt water gradually penetrates the ground from below, contaminating the drinking water. Crops hardly grow anymore.
Two years ago, Meita visited her homeland and sought out the place where she grew up. "When I arrived, it was all gone," she says. "The sea had taken over."
Climate change is already forcing many from Kiribati and other South Pacific islands to flee. "The soil represents their common heritage. It's part of their identity, especially since they don't have a written history," migration expert Sophie Wirsching explains. Their ancestors are buried on the land and many believe that their spirits continue to reside there, she adds. "It's as if the islanders were being robbed."
The islands won't disappear overnight. But already, life has become increasingly difficult because of the coastal erosion, lack of drinking water and farming problems. The people on Papua New Guinea's Carteret Islands are already due to resettle because of the rise of sea levels. The same goes for the roughly 500 inhabitants of Taro Island, part of the Solomon Islands chain. The Maldives, using money it generates from tourism, wants to finance a land purchase in Australia, New Zealand or India. And Kiribati, as previously mentioned, bought land on the Fiji Islands.
The Fiji Islands serve as a voice for the region and presided over last November's UN Climate Change Conference, in Bonn, Germany. Their message is something that until now has been largely ignored by the industrialized nations: that more and more people are already being displaced by climate change.
The overwhelming majority of those people move within their respective countries. A recent report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) found that in 2016, climate and weather-related disasters such as floods and storms affected some 23.5 million people. This does not include creeping changes such as sea-level rise, coastal erosion or droughts. And yet, those shifts too are having a major impact, as Kiribati, Fiji and other South Pacific island nations can attest.
Forced to start over
On the Fiji islands, the government is planning to move 45 coastal villages to the mountains over the next five to 10 years. On Vanua Levu, Fiji's second largest island, the town of Vunidogoloa has already relocated. The new site overlooks a lush palm forest. Dozens of pastel-green-painted huts stand on stilts on a slope. Four fish ponds were installed to replace the mackerel the villagers used to take from the sea. And unlike its original location, Vunidogoloa is now on a wide gravel road, and has regular bus service.
The youngest are happy about the resettlement. They now have modern bathrooms and solar power for their cell phones. But the elderly mourn their old village, of which only a few stones remain.
At the top of the hill in Vunidogoloa, Tevity Tuimalawai whacks at the dry soil with his rake. Sweat trickles from his forehead. The 72-year-old grows taro and manioc on a small plot he was given after the move. But he would much rather teach his grandchildren how to fish on the shores of the old town. Tuimalawai tears up when he talks about how as a teenager, he learned to fish from his grandfather.
Sometimes he walks the three kilometers down to the sea, where the old village stood and his parents and grandparents grew up. Then he looks at the waves or takes a nap. Where once the village stood, tall grass now grows. An iron roof lies on the ground. Near the remains of the house are three huts. In one there is an old copy of the Bible. In the middle of the old village is a single stone, all that remains of a church that was swept away years ago by a hurricane.
Over the years, the sea has eaten away more than 10 meters of the land, overflowing the walls of the embankment and adding salt water to the ground. "At night, when the tide came, we heard the water underneath our houses," says Sailosi Ramatu, the village head. "We were afraid to go to bed."
Along with the ponds, authorities built new fields and paths, a retaining wall, and set up a waste and water system. But the villagers themselves had to pay for the new houses, which cost roughly 100,000 euros, they say. For that they had to cut down many of he surrounding trees to sell the wood. The government admits it didn't have all the money it needed to fund the whole relocation effort.
For help, Fiji and other island countries are looking to the perpetrators of climate change: the industrialized countries. They demand compensation for the property and the land they're losing. They also want help relocating people who have to leave the islands altogether. The World Bank has suggested that countries such as Australia, New Zealand or South Korea provide work visas to inhabitants of the threatened South Pacific islands. But Australia has refused. And the industrialized countries as a whole won't offer compensation.
Eventually, though, they too will have to deal with rising tides, starting in places like Florida and the Netherlands or Florida. "What is happening in the South Pacific today will be coming to Europe or the United States in 20, 30 years," says Wirsching.
Reluctant to relocate
Fiji still has the option of relocating people within the country. That won't be the case for the people of Kiribati, who know they'll have to give up their entire national territory. Many of its islands reach no more than two meters above the sea. And their inhabitants have no guarantees: The UN's Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees does not account for climate refugees.
Kiribati had no choice then but to take matters into its own hands — to buy land elsewhere — but that too poses certain problems. In the village of Naviavia, located in the area of Fiji now owned by Kiribati, schoolchildren in blue uniforms run around. Its 270 inhabitants are descendants of slaves from the Solomon Islands who were abducted and brought by British colonists to work in plantations. "It hurts a bit," Deri Vakalele, 69, says of the fact that the land she lived on for decades is now owned by another nation.
The inhabitants of Kiribati are also threatened by an identity crisis.
In the Fiji Times, villagers read that between 18,000 and 20,000 Kiribati people are coming. Will the new landowners pollute the river that flows through their village? How will they earn money if they can no longer pick the coconuts from the surrounding area and sell the oil on the market? Can they maintain their culture when tens of thousands of people encircle their village on a foreign island?
Last year, Kiribati's vice-president visited Fiji. The delegation drank kava (a traditional beverage) with the villagers. They visited the village, the palm forest and walked up the mountains. They reassured the local that it would be a smooth tradition, and that inhabitants wouldn't start arriving for another 10 years. But the inhabitants of Kiribati are also threatened by an identity crisis. They have always been connected to the sea. Now they're being told they'll have to live in the mountains, and in a foreign country.
Sometimes, when Mary Meita thinks of her native Kiribati—the memories of her childhood sinking, quite literally, into the sea — she feels anger rising; anger at the industrialized countries. For this part of our interview she asks that I quote her as a private citizen rather than an embassy official. "We hate the idea of having to move," she says. "And we don't want to be called climate refugees. We're not responsible for all that!"