Tarawa, an atol and the Republic of Kiribati's capital. (From Sea Change: An Atlas of Islands in a Rising Ocean)

The Republic of Kiribati Islands Faces an Uncertain Future

Exploring an island in a rising ocean

This look at the threats of climate change to the Republic of Kiribati island nation is excerpted from a collection chronicling the challenges all islands face in a warming future. Purchase the book at Sea Change: An Atlas of Islands in a Rising Ocean.

Republic of Kiribati Islands 3.3704º S 168.7340º W
  • Archipelagic nation of 32 atolls and 1 island
  • 313 sq. mi. (811 km2) | Tarawa: 193 sq. mi. (500 km2)
  • Population: 114,189 (2022 est.) | Tarawa: 56,284 (2010 census)
  • 98% I-Kiribati, 0.2% Tuvaluan
  • Languages: I-Kiribati, English
  • Mean Elevation: 6.56 ft. (2 m) | Highest Elevation: 14.7 ft. (4.5 m)

The Republic of Kiribati Islands is the only country in the world to span all four hemispheres. The nation straddles the international date line and the equator. The reach of Kiribati’s thirty-two coral atolls and one raised coral island is extensive: they are spread out over 1.3 million square miles (3.5 million km2) of ocean.

Like neighboring nations, I-Kiribati are expert navigators, developing, in particular, the art of reading cloud signs to locate islands. “‘As you approach land from a distance,’” I-Kiribati navigator Abera Beniata of the atoll Nikunau said, “the ‘land cloud at first lies on the horizon like other clouds, but as the hours go by, you notice that it stays in the same place . . . ’ This process . . . brings out the importance of prolonged observation” (Lewis 217). “Abera mentioned two special signs,” navigator David Lewis continues. “The one occurs when it is calm and there are no other clouds. If you look carefully, he told me, you may see a pair of clouds low on the horizon of the type called te nangkoto, which are like a pair of eyebrows” (217). Upon approach, the color and even more so the brightness of clouds indicate proximity to land.

Now, sea level rise threatens these low-lying atolls. On average, the islands sit a mere 6.56 feet (2 m) above sea level. Additionally, the atolls’ average width is 1410–1476 feet (430–450 m) and often much narrower. Given the slim sliver, people typically live in close proximity to the shoreline. Often only enough room exists for one road. Homes, hospitals, and schools are located close to the waterfront. The atolls have already been struggling against rising seas, frequently experiencing inundation during king tides, also referred to as the perigean tides, the high tides that arrive when the moon is new or full and closest to the earth. As a result, homes are frequently flooded.

The western Kiribati Islands are also some of the most densely populated places globally, with most residents living on Tarawa Atoll. The eastern part of Tarawa is called North Tarawa and the southern part is called South Tarawa. In 1999 two islands—Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea—once part of North Tarawa disappeared underwater. Both were uninhabited. According to the World Bank, 18–80 percent of North Tarawa could be underwater by 2050.

While the population density on the islands is 647 per square mile (250 per km2), in South Tarawa it is 4663 per square mile (1800 per km2), comparable to the population density of Hong Kong or Tokyo. On this overcrowded atoll infrastructure, providing access to potable water and sanitation of wastewater, is sorely lacking. Most drinking water comes from rainwater catchment. (See Teresia Teaiwa’s poem “I Will Drink the Rain (for Toma)” following.) A drought could quickly exhaust these reserves. In urban settings only 51 percent have access to sanitation facilities; in rural environments only 31 percent do.

Anote Tong, president from 2003 to 2016, made climate change and sea level rise key pillars of his political platform. In June of 2008, he made global headlines when he asked both Australia and New Zealand to accept citizens of Kiribati for permanent resettlement as climate refugees.

This resettlement would not be the nation’s first. Like islanders in neighboring countries, such as the Northern Mariana Islands (16), Guåhan (17), and the Marshall Islands (20), I-Kiribati were forcibly resettled by colonizers. In 1900, the British annexed the island of Banaba and discovered phosphate, also located on Nauru (22), 185 miles to the west. The British began to mine the phosphate to use it as fertilizer. In 1945, the British forced Banaba’s population to relocate to Rabi Island, Fiji (26). (Banaba is administered by Rabi Island, Fiji, and the Banabans have both Kiribati and Fijian citizenship.) The mining profits went to the British, so the Banabans sued in 1970 to receive a higher percentage of revenues. Although Britain agreed to give Banabans half the revenues in 1973, by that point the remaining phosphate was minimal.

Ghost forests of coconut trees due to saltwater intrusion are abundant here.

Kiribati has already lost territory to saltwater inundation. For example, the atoll of Abaiang has lost 262 feet (80 m) since 1964. As a result, the atoll’s once thriving village Tebunginako was abandoned in 1994 and its residents relocated 164 feet (50 m) inland. What remains of the original location now rests about 98 feet (30 m) offshore. Most visible is a church.

Ghost forests of coconut trees due to saltwater intrusion are abundant here. On Abaiang, when the coconuts do grow, their size and shape is diminished due to drought and wave overwash. Coconut and copra, its meat, are key crops. Breadfruit trees suffer a similar fate.

In 2012, Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati national, applied for asylum in New Zealand as a climate refugee, stating that sea level rise makes it impossible for him to have potable water and to grow food. His application was denied. He appealed the decision. The Supreme Court of New Zealand denied the appeal, arguing that although climate change is impacting Kiribati, climate change conditions are not included in the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. New Zealand has, however, created an annual lottery, the Pacific Access Ballot. Annually, approximately 75 I-Kiribati, 250 Fijians, 75 Tuvaluans, and 250 Tongans are allowed to emigrate through this program.

According to a UN report, climate change contributes considerably to moves in Kiribati, accounting for one in seven moves, whether interisland or international or both. The report also found that half of Kiribati households are already impacted by sea level rise. As journalist Laura Walters wrote with regard to displacement: “Papua New Guinea and Bougainville, Fiji and the Solomon Islands are already struggling to manage internal climate-related displacement, and a country with limited stable and productive land like Kiribati doesn’t have the same options when it comes to migration within its own borders.”

In 2012, then President Tong purchased 6000 acres of land on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest and very mountainous island, 1000 miles away, in case his people need a place to migrate to in the future. But this decision is fraught, as Fiji itself is relocating communities due to sea level rise. Coining the phrase “migration with dignity,” Tong sought to provide secure housing for his country’s people well before the Kiribati islands become uninhabitable.

Alongside three other atoll island nations, the Maldives (12), the Marshall Islands (20), and Tuvalu (27), Kiribati is now exploring raising part of its islands—in particular, the capital atoll Tarawa.

Excerpted from Sea Change: An Atlas of Islands in a Rising Ocean by Christina Gerhardt, cartography by Molly Roy, published by the University of California Press. © 2023

Christina Gerhardt is Associate Professor at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, former Barron Professor of Environmental Humanities at Princeton University and a permanent Senior Fellow at UC-Berkeley. She is also an environmental journalist and has been published in The Guardian, Grist, The Nation and Sierra.