I will not leave the lands of my ancestors! I will not abandon my motherland! I refuse to leave the only place I call home!”
These were the words of 21-year-old youth and future leader of Kiribati, Ms. Tabitha Awerika, at a side event organised by the Coalition of Atoll Nations on Climate Change (CAN-CC), on the sidelines of the Twenty-fifth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP25).
Awerika shared her experiences about the challenges and uncertainties faced by youth in low-lying atoll nations in the Pacific such as Kiribati, Republic of Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, as well as the Maldives, who are all members of the CAN-CC.
She asked world leaders to listen to the science, as well as the cries and pleas of those living in Pacific small island states who are at the front-lines of climate change and have continued with a business-as-usual approach.
“You may have heard this cry before, but I must continue to burden your ears and conscience until you do listen!”
Coral atoll nations are comprised entirely of coastlines, with the highest points on these islands being just two metres above sea-level. These nations are facing the severe impacts of climate change, such as king tides, droughts, more frequent droughts, increased frequency and strength of extreme weather events, as well as diseases that are brought about as a result of these impacts.
The atoll nations of Kiribati, Maldives, Republic of Marshall Islands and Tokelau and Tuvalu, joined forces to form the Coalition, to give them a collective voice on the very real threat to their survival as a people, and their ability to continue living on the lands of their ancestors, as the climate emergency looks to worsen over time.
The President of Kiribati, Taneti Maamau revealed that his country continues to experience extreme weather events and rising sea levels as a result of a rapidly and dangerously changing climate. The effects have impacted drinking water wells, which are now inundated with saltwater, leaving his people no choice but to drink salty water, which, in turn, results in health problems.
Other infrastructure within the country have also been affected, such as schools, transportation and communications.
“Infrastructure development and maintenance is a big issue in the face of climate change, and the Government has put in funds from its meagre savings towards these areas, but it is nowhere near enough,” President Maamau said.
The Minister of Health of the Government of Tuvalu, Isaia Taape, said there has been an increase in climate change-related health cases in his country.
“Tuvalu is already seeing devastating impacts of climate change on its communities. Extreme weather events, sea-level rise and saltwater inundation have resulted in diseases such as diarrhoea from contaminated food and water, respiratory diseases and non-communicable diseases as a result of compromised food security,” Taape said.
The country has also recorded outbreaks of dengue fever from the months of January to June, with linkages to the increased and prolonged rainfall during that period.
In the Indian Ocean, the Maldives are also feeling the impacts of climate change hitting them where it hurts the most – their tourism industry, which has been the country’s major income earner for decades.
“People come to the Maldives to see our underwater gardens, creatures and unique biodiversity, but because countries continually pump large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, warming the planet, and causing sea levels to rise due to the polar ice caps melting, our corals are dying and are not given enough time to regenerate,” said Dr Hussein Hassan, Minister of Environment of Maldives.
“These things are happening not because of anything we have done. They are happening because big emitters continue to pump these harmful gases into our atmosphere, and to rectify these problems, we have to borrow money from banks with interest, and beg these big emitters to give us money so we can adapt to these changes,” he added.
The Pacific leaders and youth who spoke out all had the same message to the world.
They do not want to be climate refugees, they do not want to leave the lands of their identity, and they will fight for their natural right to continue living in the lands of their ancestors.