Kiribati’s shores are eroding and they are tired of world leaders denying their responsibility for the climate crisis.
Terieta Mwenwenikeaki, the small island’s Permanent Secretary for Women, Youth Sport and Social Development is in Samoa for the Pacific Games, and said the climate crisis is no longer a purely scientific discussion.
“It has become part of our life,” he said.
“We are witnessing and experiencing the impacts of climate change in Kiribati, it’s our biggest challenge that we are facing, as the government and the people of Kiribati.”
International negotiations are not delivering ambitious action, despite large-scale meetings taking place more than once a year for the last few years.
“There hasn’t been evidence of global cooperation and global understanding on a solution,” Mr Mwenwenikeaki said.
“It seems we keep having a lot of excuses and delaying tactics at the international negotiation level.”
At home in Kiribati, the permanent secretary is seeing the sea level rise around them, a dire freshwater shortage and food crops being spoiled by the intrusion of seawater into arable land.
In 2016, then-President Anote Tong warned the first climate refugees would be leaving Kiribati in 2020.
“If you don’t see this as your responsibility, then you are morally wrong, you are committing a crime against humanity. This is about our survival,” Mr Mwenwenikeaki said.
Tateite Kannangaki is the Kiribati weightlifting team coach. He said while he hasn’t personally thought about leaving the island yet, some of his family members are trying their luck with New Zealand Pacific Access Category Resident Visa.
It is a residency application ballot for people from Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tonga or Fiji, aged between 18-45 years old. There is a quota, which has 75 places for I-Kiribati and Tuvalu, and 250 from Tonga and Fiji.
“Hopefully someday they will someday find a place in New Zealand,” he said.
“It depends on how fortunate you are… the issue is money.”
People on the 33 atoll and reef islands are frustrated about the impacts this global problem is having on their lives, Mr Mwenwenikeaki said.
At first, people thought the changes around them were natural, and were upset to learn it is the result of human action instead.
“We are facing the consequences of actions of other people living on the other side of the world, for their satisfaction, for growth and so on,” he said.
“They are living in a luxury world while we are facing the impacts. So yes, people are frustrated.
“It is not fair if people in Kiribati are facing the effects of climate change without any contributions from the cause of the problem.”
For its part, the Government of Kiribati is recieving international funding to deploy adaptation and resilience projects, and to train their people to adjust to the changes.
The Global Environment Facility (G.E.F) has financed, or helped co-finance US$65,919,052 across 12 national projects on land degradation, climate change and biodiversity.
From its Least Developed Country Fund, G.E.F has mobilised US$76,511,210.
The Green Climate Fund has just one project in Kiribati but it is large: US$28.6 million, towards the South Tarawa Water Supply project, worth $58.1 million altogether.
The Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and the Government of Kiribati are co-financing the $29.5 million remainder.
And locally, Government does what it can do support its people.
“We do play a very important role by empowering our women and youth to be able to adapt to the changes,” Mr Mwenwenikeaki said.
“We have no choice, we have to adapt, and build resilience in many small ways.”
And though some people are thinking about leaving, Mr Mwenwenikeaki said most people want to stay, and are not thinking about a future outside of their home.
The Pacific Games and sporting events generally are good opportunities to advocate their needs, he said.
“We want to be a country where our athletes can live there for as long as they wish, to represent their country, but if climate change will force us to leave, we will no longer represent our country.
“We will end up in the teams of Fiji, or Australia if the situation gets worse which will force us to leave our land,” said Mr Mwenwenikeaki
“We are still positive you know. Most of our people, our athletes, they are very positive that they will be staying in Kiribati for a while.”
Coach Kannangaki said his team has been talking about how different Samoa’s land is to Kiribati, and how much more resilient Samoa is to the rising tides.
“We come from small islands where we can see the sea and the lagoon and the same time. They are very thin strips of land,” he said.
“We see our land being eroded, and we can see during high tides the seas coming onto the land. We have seen so many places being eroded.”
Mr Kannangaki was comforted to see the climate crisis highlighted in the Opening Ceremony performance, telling the story of Samoa’s mythology but also the story of the Blue Pacific.
“When climate change was mentioned, it was very touching.
“Knowing that we from the small islands will be the most affected… it was a very touching, very sensitive moment.”