The people of Kiribati, a group of islands in the Pacific ocean particularly exposed to climate change, now own a possible refuge elsewhere. President Anote Tong has recently finalised the purchase of 20 sq km on Vanua Levu, one of the Fijiislands, about 2,000km away.
The Church of England has sold a stretch of land mainly covered by dense forest for $8.77m. “We would hope not to put everyone on [this] one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it,” Tong told the Associated Press. Kiribati has a population of about 110,000 scattered over 33 small, low-lying islands extending over a total area of 3.5m sq km.
In 2009 the Maldives were the first to raise the possibility of purchasing land in another country in anticipation of being gradually submerged. At the time the government looked at options in India and Sri Lanka.
Now Kiribati has taken action. “Kiribati is just the first on a list which could get longer as time passes,” says Ronald Jumeau, Seychelles ambassador at the United Nations, who took part in the international negotiations on climate change in Bonn last month.
In March the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published the volume on adaptation of its fifth assessment report, confirming in starker terms forecasts first outlined by scientists in 1990. Within a few decades, small islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans risk being extensively or even completely submerged. In places the sea level is rising by 1.2cm a year, four times faster than the global average.
The cost of protecting these places against rising sea levels, compared with national income, is among the highest in the world. Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Maldives are among the 10 countries where the financial impact of climate change is the most severe.
For many of these countries, which are represented by the Alliance of Small Island States, the impacts of climate change are “irreparable”, as Tong has often stressed. “Whatever is agreed within the United States today, with China [the two largest sources of CO2 emissions], it will not have a bearing on our future, because already, it's too late for us … And so we are the canary. But hopefully, that experience will send a very strong message that we might be on the frontline today, but others will be on the frontline next,” he said in an interview on CNN last month. This explains why small island states think it is so important to set up an international mechanism for loss and damage, to compensate for the irremediable consequences of global warming.
The international community approved the principle of such a mechanism in November 2013. “When a population is forced to leave its country, it is no longer a matter of adaptation,” Jumeau claims. “Where will these countries find funds? It is up to the industrialised countries, which caused global warming, to shoulder their responsibilities.” He wants to make the loss and damage mechanism a priority for the global deal on climate change slated to be signed in Paris in December 2015.
In the immediate future, the land purchased by Kiribati will above all be used to for agricultural and fish-farming projects to guarantee the nation's food security. With sea water increasingly contaminating the atolls' groundwater and catastrophic coral bleaching – total in some cases such as Phoenix atoll – there are growing food shortages. “Among the small islands, Kiribati is the country that has done most to anticipate its population's future needs,” says François Gemenne, a specialist on migrations at Versailles-Saint Quentin University, France. “The government has launched the 'migration with dignity' policy to allow people to apply for jobs on offer in neighbouring countries such as New Zealand. The aim is to avoid one day having to cope with a humanitarian evacuation.”
Kiribati has long-standing relations with Fiji. In the 1950s families from Banaba island, who had been displaced to make room for a phosphate mine, took refuge there, Gemenne recalls. More