In Kiribati it’s population rather than rising sea levels that matters

19 06 2013

marko'connorAnother guest post by Mark O’Connor who takes on a fresh approach to the tribulations of so called Climate Refugees and proves there are more ways to skin a cat

In Kiribati and on many other atolls it’s population rather than rising sea levels that pinches worst, at least as yet — a point made in Overloading Australia, and confirmed in a talk I heard recently from Prof. Ian Whyte, a Pacific expert from  Australian National University. Many of the inhabited Pacific atolls are fetid, overcrowded, and unsanitary, with far more people than palm trees. (A far cry from the tourist posters!)

The islands’  lack of fresh water and the worrying  “saltwater incursions” may as yet have little to do with the rising sea-level, but everything to do with more and more families pumping up water from the thin lens of fresh water (from rains) that floats above saltwater inside the sands of an atoll.  Sanitation is not easy on an atoll. Pit toilets often deliver human wastes into the same fresh water lens on which the islanders rely for drinking water.

Predictably, people who have overpopulated their islands out of folly and religious prejudices against birth-control are now claiming the right to be treated as environmental refugees.

Now Bill Ryerson has sent in this recent piece from Reuters. It’s good to see journalists, or at least a journalist,  finally recognising the population angle.

Bill writes:

The following story comes from the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, composed of 32 atolls and one raised coral island — dispersed over 1.3 million square miles of ocean. All in all, the country is 313 square miles, but has a rapidly growing population of 103,000. About half the total population lives on an atoll named South Tarawa, which is only 6 square miles. 53% of the population are under age 24. Kiribati also has the dubious distinction of being one of the first victims of global sea-level rise (President Anote Tong says the country has between 30 to 60 years before it is uninhabitable because of inundation and contamination of its fresh-water supply).

I found the following video to be a good companion piece to today’s article:

Tide of humanity, as well as rising seas, lap at Kiribati’s future

(Reuters) – The ocean laps against a protective seawall outside the maternity ward at Kiribati’s Nawerewere Hospital, marshalling itself for another assault with the next king tide.

Inside, a basic clinic is crowded with young mothers and newborn babies, the latest additions to a population boom that has risen as relentlessly as the sea in a deeply Christian outpost where family planning is still viewed with skepticism.

It is a boom that threatens to overwhelm the tiny atoll of South Tarawa as quickly as the rising seas. Some 50,000 people, about half of Kiribati’s total population, are already crammed onto a sand and coral strip measuring 16 sq km (6 sq miles).

“Climate change is a definite long-term threat to Kiribati, there’s no doubt whatsoever about that,” says Simon Donner, a climate scientist at the University of British Columbia who has been visiting South Tarawa since 2005.

“But that doesn’t mean it’s the biggest problem right now … Any first-time visitor to Tarawa is not struck by the impacts of sea level rise, they’re struck by how crowded it is.”

Low-lying South Pacific island nations such as Kiribati (pronounced Kee-ree-bahs) and Tuvalu, about halfway between northeast Australia and Hawaii, have long been the cause célèbre for climate change and rising sea levels.

Straddling the equator and spread over 3.5 million sq km (2 million sq miles) of otherwise empty ocean, Kiribati’s 32 atolls and one raised coral island have an average height above sea level of just two meters (6-1/2 feet).

Studies show surrounding sea levels rising at about 2.9 mm a year, well above the global average of 1 – 2 mm a year.

Kiribati President Anote Tong has grimly predicted his country will likely become uninhabitable in 30-60 years because of inundation and contamination of its fresh water supplies.


While climate change poses a serious longer-term threat, many people, including Tong, recognize that breakneck population growth is a more immediate problem. South Tarawa’ population density of more than 3,000 per sq km is comparable to Los Angeles or parts of London – without the high rises.

The government fears South Tarawa’s population could double to more than 100,000 by 2030 unless the birth rate and internal migration slows.

Rudimentary huts of little more than timber sleeping platforms and palm thatch roofs line a single dusty road running the length of the atoll. Dotted among them are pig pens, chicken coops, overcrowded grave sites and the blasted relics from one of the bloodiest battles of World War Two.

Bwabwa Oten, Kiribati’s director of hospital services, says current annual population growth in Kiribati is close to 6 percent, with overcrowding a major contributor to disease and an infant mortality rate among the highest in the region.

The church plays an integral role in the South Pacific and efforts to limit birth rates have run into resistance. Large families are also traditional in the region, which has one of the world’s highest rates of teen pregnancy.

Describing the population surge as “a menace”, Tong has called on churches to help curb growth by allowing their members to use birth control.

“Religion is incredibly powerful in the Pacific and there is quite an overt suspicion that, when we are talking about family planning, it in fact means family stopping,” said Bronwyn Hale of New Zealand-based Family Planning International, which is working to promote sexual and reproductive health in Kiribati.

Progress is being made, with clinic visitor numbers up and a growing acceptance of the threat of over-population.

“Right now, population is the major issue, the number one issue we should face,” said Peter Itibita, a member of the Mormon Church in South Tarawa.

Many health problems also stem from a lack of clean water as rising salinity and pollution affect underground water, with diarrhea outbreaks caused by contamination from human and animal waste and other pollutants.

Nawerewere Hospital also has problems, with new mothers spilling from overcrowded wards onto verandas and into corridors.

“Sometimes with the new babies, we don’t have the water to wash them,” says Rina Tabi, a maternity ward nurse.

Plans are underway for solar-powered energy and desalination plants but the cost of building and maintaining them is a challenge for cash-strapped Kiribati, which relies on aid and royalties from foreign fishing fleets.


The complexities of sea level change are becoming more apparent and there is little doubt that nations like Kiribati will be among the most affected. But it is equally clear that vulnerable states like Kiribati are responsible for less than 0.1 percent of global emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.

According to the United Nations, population growth in the Pacific has consistently exceeded all other regions except Africa for the past 30 years and is likely to remain higher than the global average for the next 40-50 years, even though barely 10 million people are dotted across the world’s biggest ocean.

There is also a history of concern about Pacific over-crowding, with dire predictions of population growth outstripping food production dating back to the 1960s.

Barry Coates, executive director of Oxfam New Zealand, said populations of fragile atolls had long-developed resilience in dealing with resource shortages, cyclones and other periodic climatic events.

“But what is happening now is that the pressures of population growth and climate change are overwhelming the traditional coping mechanisms,” Coates said.

The Kiribati government has also been looking at radical options for feeding and housing its people, including negotiating to buy land on nearby Fiji.

Larger Pacific neighbors New Zealand and Australia are likely to play a big role if large-scale migration is needed, and Western governments are under pressure to create a new refugee category for those fleeing the effects of climate change. A test case from Kiribati was rejected in New Zealand in 2012 and changes to international law will likely be needed.

(Additional reporting and writing by Lincoln Feast in SYDNEY; Editing by Paul Tait)

Photo: Overpopulation: Maybe It’s Time To Offend A Few FolksSpeaking out about human overpopulation is not an easy thing, as I have been told that people get offended. I have not personally experienced offending anyone, but perhaps those folks have been too polite to tell me. I have not read any studies that prove people are offended, but perhaps I have missed them. If I offend you in this video, please let me know.I once asked the executive director of the Rainforest Action Network why RAN didn’t discuss the huge number of people on the planet as a factor in rainforest devastation and encourage smaller human families, as everyone in that nonprofit organization probably understands that the demand for resources from 7 billion people on the planet is causing extensive damage to the earth. They know that if the UN projection of 10 billion people on the planet by 2050 is right, it will be disastrous for forests everywhere. She admitted, abashedly, that she did not want to alienate donors.RAN is an organization whose members break into corporate offices and hang banners out the windows excoriating Big Oil, yet they are afraid to talk about human overpopulation in their pamphlets or on their website. If RAN won’t admit the link between diminishing natural resources and a population that grows by 220,000 people every day, then what large environmental organization will?It turns out, none.Is it really impolite to promote smaller families?To read the complete article and watch the TED Talk video go here: by RonnieMy comment:  Yes, I know some of the “it’s consumerism not population that’s the problem” crowd will once again try to make that point.  It’s my own view that population and consumerism are both major problems and that one can’t be addressed and the other ignored.  The planet can only support a limited number of humans without going into overshoot so population is a problem no matter the amount that people consume.  The more people there are the more resources that get consumed and all of the resources necessary for sustaining human health are limited on this planet.The other point I would like to make is that although I agree that the best way to reduce population growth is to educate women it seems to me that that will only be a temporary means of addressing the problem because as we see the global economy continue to crash sooner or later it will no longer be possible for NGO’s to raise the funds to make that a reality in the poorer nations that have the fastest growing populations.I would also like to point out that the UN’s projections of a population of 10 billion people by 2050 is based on there being constant global economic growth throughout that period, lifting much of the world’s population out of poverty, but does anyone actually believe that will happen.  I think that without large scale famine, certainly a real possibility considering the growing global food and water crisis, we will far exceed that 10 billion mark.




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