March 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Sinking sandbanks

By Craig Sherborne
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

When bankers fly in to Kiribati, a fine evening spread is put on at the main hotel. Blue-cardboard ironies are erected: squat sandwich boards and billowy banners advertising ANZ home loans. Yes, home loans, in a place global warming is meant to be washing away – an impoverished, remote dot in the Pacific, where the most inhabited stretch of land, Tarawa, is only 35 kilometres long and barely 300 metres wide.

‘Inhabited’ is too inhibited a word for Tarawa: ‘sardined in squalor’ would be more accurate. Rising sea levels will leave half the island underwater by the middle of the century, according to the World Bank. Climate activists portray Kiribati as a victim of global warming, but there is seldom any mention of a more pressing problem: Tarawa, the main island of the nation’s 33 coral atolls, which lie 4500 kilometres north-east of Australia, has a population density to rival that of Asia’s teeming cities. No wonder bankers are here to peddle their wares.

Overcrowding is destroying Tarawa, fouling it with the rubbish of daily life, weakening its frail natural defences against the flooding ocean tide. At night you wouldn’t think the place anything but a sparsely peopled tropical idyll, a dogleg of earth lying serenely beneath tinsel stars. Come daylight, there it is: Tarawa the campsite-city, tacked up between palms. An outdoor dormitory of shacks with walls half fibro, half blankets and tarpaulins; a roof one-quarter tarpaulin, the rest palm branches and a bit of iron; a few buckled sticks for frames, and old stock-feed bags for doors. There are brick huts, some no bigger than a garden shed, for the well heeled.

The further south you go, the more the city clusters. The population of Kiribati’s islands is around 110,000 people. Half of them live in Tarawa, most at the southern end. A 2005 census put South Tarawa’s population at 40,300, an increase of almost 43% over a decade. The southern tip, the islet of Betio, is 1.7 square kilometres in size and has a population density greater than Hong Kong’s, but without the high-rises to house people. Some local observers believe the population may have doubled in Betio in the past few years.

“Things are changing on the outer islands. The subsistence life is almost gone. People migrate here to find jobs and for schools,” says Dr Ueantabo Neemia Mackenzie, director of the University of the South Pacific’s Kiribati campus. Veronica Karea, a businesswoman trying to establish a tourism trade for the outer islands, says that while many indigenous families still maintain a traditional lifestyle away from Tarawa – fishing, harvesting copra – their children aren’t so committed. “When children start going to school, the parents get worried because they will leave and come to Tarawa.” But only 23% of people have regular employment, half of them working in government administration. The average wage in Tarawa is A$60 a week.

Kiribati is a former British protectorate that gained independence in 1979. The Japanese occupied the islands during World War II, until they were driven off by the Americans. These days Kiribati has a fishing zone spanning 3.5 million square kilometres, one of the largest in the Pacific and rich in tuna. International fishing fleets pay Kiribati US$30 million a year to fish its waters. Seafaring on merchant vessels is the most prestigious job a Kiribati worker can have. In Tarawa there are Japanese- and Taiwanese-funded marine-training centres preparing people for such work. A graduate “can make US$1000 a month”, Dr Mackenzie says. “There is about US$10 million coming back into this country every year as remittances wired back home to wives, to mothers, brothers, an ever-growing extended family coming in from the outer islands.”

That explains a few things, such as why many of the hotchpotch camp dwellings have satellite dishes pointing skyward beside their doors made of bed sheets. It explains the ANZ bank’s presence, and the Toyota dealership with spanking-new vehicles on display in a gap between Southern Tarawa’s hovels. “There’s a lot of money around in Kiribati, coming from these remittances,” Dr Mackenzie tells me. “But also, there is money here that no one can truly say where it comes from.”

He contributed to a recent Kiribati government report, The Challenge: Things (Beginning to) Fall Apart, setting out the problems of overcrowding in Tarawa. Problem number one is pollution. Sanitation standards are appalling: according to the report, 64% of people don’t use a toilet. The 30-year-old sewerage system is in poor repair and only reaches one in five households. Some people have a septic tank attached to flushing toilets at their dwelling, but that’s hardly a good idea given Tarawa’s sandy, porous soil. Human waste seeps into the groundwater.

The rest do “beach toileting”. When the tide goes out, exposing Tarawa’s underwater litter life – old mattresses, shoes, prams, bike wheels – people stroll from their shacks, towels over their shoulders, heading for the beach. There they hoist up their sarongs and do their business. Crabs scuttle out to feast on the faeces. You don’t eat crab in Kiribati. You shouldn’t eat shellfish or swim either, though plenty of locals do, digging around in the exposed seabed, dragging fishing nets through the lagoon’s incoming tide that many believe works as nature’s cistern, washing the shoreline clean.

There are no rubbish bins in Kiribati. Around their homes people dispose of plastics and food wrappings by burning them in piles. On the road, outside their suburb’s tiny shop, adults throw empty drink bottles on the ground. Teenagers suck milky liquid from the corners of fist-sized plastic bags which they throw at their feet when finished. Thousands of pigs are kept right next to homes. So too are deceased loved ones, buried in graves decorated with raggy garlands as shrines – more seepage to threaten the island’s potable water.

Groundwater is pumped around the island, but what clean supply is available is running out: the infrastructure hasn’t been adequately maintained and expanded to cope with the population boom. “There is a reticulated-water scheme here but it is not working, because the water pressure is too low due to illegal connections,” says Dr Mackenzie. “People block off the pipes to divert the water to their homes. People at the other end of the island are then deprived of water.”

The same goes for illegal electricity connections. In fact, most of Tarawa’s houses are illegal, and classed as squatter dwellings. When people migrate from the outer islands they set up camp alongside the established camps of family members, without regard for building codes. “Part of the reason is an incompatibility between people’s understanding of land rights,” Dr MacKenzie explains. “Traditional owners lease the land to the government, but the people still believe they can give friends or family permission to build on that land.”

The Kiribati government, aid agencies and overseas consultants conduct studies to “scope” solutions to these problems, but the Challenge report concluded that politically, legally and culturally there has not been enthusiasm to implement regulations and bring order to the population growth. Local-government officials are reluctant to enforce urban-planning laws because they don’t want to create conflict with the squatters. They don’t want to make enemies.

Another major problem for Tawara is erosion. By 8.45 am the tide arrives to rinse the beach of its cans and plastic bags, its food containers and sewage. A glittering ink-blot blue water appears, streaked with neon green. This water sits up so high in the horizon it looks like a mountain range. The land feels lower than the ocean, which slushes into the shin-high sandbag walls. In some places it is lower, and the ocean looms on each side as you travel the slither of the road.

There is a scientific model, the Bruun Rule, for measuring the relationship between rising sea level and land loss: for every one-millimetre rise in sea level, there is an incremental loss of land. But the rule is simplistic, especially when applied to fragile atolls such as Kiribati. According to research conducted by the Pacific Islands Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC), there has been a 30% increase in land size over the past 60 years. Dr Arthur Webb, the manager of SOPAC’s coastal-processes program, has contributed to research that shows a 3% land increase even in islands with a small population and little modernisation. “You couldn’t begin to describe the complexity of these places,” he says. “Islands are not static. Coral reefs are very productive in the tropics. Bits break off, get nibbled by fish and erode, and get washed ashore and accumulate.”

Dr Webb describes Kiribati as an “ephemeral sandbank”, land not pinned by rock. It is always shifting, changing size and shape. “Yes, the sea level is rising. Our program measures sea level across the region. We have been involved in doing that for the past 20 years. It is rising, by our gauges, by 4 millimetres a year. This is a very young table. And most of the land in Tarawa would be hardly a metre above the high-water mark.”

A rising watertable is a threat; so too wave overtopping, coral-bleaching that kills the reefs and lets more waves onto the island. But, Dr Webb says, there has been no empirical study that can state confidently that any erosion is caused by climate change: “I know that there are people who don’t want to read that. It’s this attitude of ‘How dare you suggest that all the problems in this environment are not associated with climate change.’“

Kiribatians used to live in small communities in traditional houses; they wouldn’t live in places that they knew were likely to change rapidly or become flooded. But overcrowding has caused them to live in unstable areas where man-made structures have altered the natural sea flow and pattern of accretion. Dr MacKenzie worries about global warming, but he has watched for years the rapid erosion of Kiribati’s coast through reckless development – not least a series of concrete causeways built during colonial times to link the islands, and one completed by the Japanese in 1987 to extend South Tarawa by 3 kilometres. There used to be sea on both sides of the causeway; now there is mainly sand on one side, washed up from other islands because of the causeway’s redirection of the water flow.

The house he lived in as child during the 1960s is underwater. “When I was a boy there was a good 50 metres from the house I grew up in to the beach. Due to the causeway, the water rose. It happened very quickly. The water flow should flush out the lagoon, but when you block the flow the current eats up part of the island. There used to be a little island in the middle of Tarawa Lagoon, a beautiful island. It is now gone.”

Beach mining also weakens the shore’s natural defences against storm waves and king tides. There is money to be made in shovelling sand and gravel into rice sacks for use as building material or, ironically, anti-flood bagging. SOPAC calculates that 70,000 cubic metres of Tarawa’s shoreline is removed for this purpose each year – a volume equivalent to almost 30 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

 Permanent concrete buildings too close to the water add to the damage. Tarawa’s traditional buildings were, like the coast itself, ephemeral: huts made of palms and sticks that could be dismantled in a flash and moved inland at flood time, then brought back and reassembled later. You can’t do that with concrete. The hospital’s maternity ward floods regularly, as do the homes of those rich enough to build a small cement structure.

 Dr Webb is angered by the assumptions of “outsiders”, especially “parachute journalists”, that today’s indigenous Kiribatians know intrinsically how to manage their environment: “These people have been brought up with a Western education, after 70 years of Western development, and why should they have any better knowledge of their environment than you or I? They don’t have the cultural tools to live in a sustainable way. It’s way beyond their sphere of experience.”

Craig Sherborne

Craig Sherborne is the author of the highly acclaimed memoir Hoi Polloi, and its sequel Muck, which won the Queensland Literary Award for Non-Fiction. He has written two volumes of poetry, Bullion and Necessary Evil, and two novels, The Amateur Science of Love and Tree Palace.

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