The Island Nation Doomed to Disappear Within Half a Century

A young boy covered in mud in Kiribati

With its white, sandy beaches and coconut palms, Kiribati appears to be the quintessential island paradise. However, in a world threatened by rising sea levels, this tiny island nation in the center of the Pacific has been put in a precarious position.


Image: Jon Lewis

Men race model canoes in Buariki, North Tarawa.

These stunning pictures are the result of photographer Jon Lewis’ six-month stay on Kiribati’s atolls, during which he interacted with the local inhabitants, called I-Kiribati, and learned about their fascinating culture. Sadly, this culture, and indeed the whole of Kiribati, could be the world’s first entire nation to disappear thanks to climate change.


Image: Jon Lewis

Anniversary dancers in the Eita Maneaba (community center), Tabiteuea.

“What we are looking at here is the eventual extinction of a distinct race of people, through loss of their home lands, and with it their vibrant social system and culture,” Lewis has said. “This is irreversible.” Kiribati president Anote Tong says that the nation will be uninhabitable within just 30 to 60 years, although the effects of climate change are being felt there already.

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Image: Jon Lewis

Fishermen in Bairiki, South Tarawa.

The Republic of Kiribati is made up of 32 atolls and a single coral island. The nation is spread around the equator in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and its closest neighboring country is Tokelau, which is situated over 440 miles away. The atolls of Kiribati are low-lying, not rising more than a couple of meters above sea level. The coral island, Banaba, has been mined for its phosphate and is deemed highly unsuitable for farming, while water salination has killed many of the coconut trees on the atoll of South Tarawa and has made the soil worthless for crops.


Image: Jon Lewis

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Abandoned vehicles litter the ground in Kiribati.

Despite the area’s remoteness, people have been living there for centuries, if not millennia. Micronesians inhabited Kiribati first, but Polynesians and Melanesians later invaded. From 1892 the Kiribati island cluster known as the Gilbert Islands – along with what is now Tuvalu – came under British protection. Then in 1916 they became a crown colony, and they remained under the British until 1971.


Image: Jon Lewis

People gather at the landing stage in Beru, Southern Gilberts.

During World War II, a bloody conflict was fought on the Kiribati atoll of Tarawa. The November 1943 Battle of Tarawa claimed the lives of almost 1,700 Americans and close to 4,700 Japanese who occupied the Gilbert Islands at the time. Relics of the war – including tanks, destroyed planes and bunkers – still litter Tarawa and Butaritari, while the remains of marines who died in the battle are the subject of excavations to this day.

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Image: Jon Lewis

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Men sleep on a ship as they travel to the Southern Gilberts.

Today, the atoll of Tarawa is home to the highest number of I-Kiribati in the Gilbert Islands. Tarawa is comprised of over 30 islets, and around 56,000 people live on its 12 square miles of dry land – with the vast majority of the population inhabiting South Tarawa. The population density in Betio, Tarawa’s commercial center, is thought to be triple that of Tokyo’s. Even without the shrinking landscape, health problems could soon plague this fast growing community.


Image: Jon Lewis

A fisherman from the village of Takarano on the Abaiang atoll.

Employment opportunities are scarce in Kiribati, with less than a quarter of the population receiving any monetary income. Instead, the local economy is often based on coconuts rather than cash. Despite this, and the peril of climate change, Lewis describes the people of Kiribati as cheerful. “I quickly became aware that there was a lot of laughter in Kiribati,” he says on Portraits from the Edge, a website collaboration with The Scissors Collective.

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An elderly lady in Temaiku, Tarawa

Even without the rising seas, however, land in Kiribati is scarce. Throughout the nation, there is a total of just 310 square miles to serve a population in excess of 100,000 and rising. Kevin Rouata, the director of the Kiribati Public Works Board, has compared life on Kiribati to being aboard a boat, adding, “There’s only limited fresh water, no more land, but the population is growing.”


Image: Jon Lewis

A boy clings to a boat at Betio wharf.

The lack of fresh water is one of Kiribati’s most pressing issues. The shortage is partially down to droughts, which increasingly affect the nation. Another cause is the reduction of the ground water lenses – layers of filtered rainwater floating above salt water – that help provide for Kiribati’s water needs. Then there is the issue of salt water entering wells, rendering them undrinkable.

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A woman and child near Ukiangang, Butaritari.

On Tarawa, water supplies face another threat: pollution. Overcrowding is such that people are living right above the largest water lens. Only around one in three of the households on South Tarawa have lavatories, which means people go to the toilet outdoors. “They’re basically defecating into the lens,” engineer and nun Marella Rebgetz told Bloomberg Businessweek. “It’s very crowded here.” Another problem is burial practices, which oftentimes see bodies interred at water lens level.


Image: Jon Lewis

A young boy in Abaokoro, Tarawa

The overcrowding and lack of sufficient sanitation facilities brings with it serious health concerns. Infant mortality is so high in Kiribati that there are huge festivities on a child’s first birthday – because it is believed that the odds of reaching adulthood are now in its favor. Leprosy is rearing its head once more, and tuberculosis is rife. In addition, there are diseases associated with rising temperatures and altering rainfall patterns, such as dengue fever and diarrhea, while cholera outbreaks are also not unknown. On top of it all, many I-Kiribati have lost limbs to diabetes.

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Preparing to depart from Abaiang

A lack of income from exports doesn’t help when it comes to finding the money to fix infrastructure within Kiribati. One of Kiribati’s greatest assets – its Pacific waters – is exploited, but by others. China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and the USA are among those with fishing fleets in the nation’s 1.3 million square miles of ocean. Fishing payouts make up about 25 percent of Kiribati’s annual revenue, while 50 percent comes from international aid.


Image: Jon Lewis

A boy poses with sand on his face in Eita, South Tarawa.

President Tong has already taken the difficult step of urging the I-Kiribati to leave their islands. “For our people to survive, then they will have to migrate,” Tong has said. “Either we can wait for the time when we have to move people en masse or we can prepare them – beginning from now.” Recently a Kiribati family sought status as climate change refugees in New Zealand. They were refused, but they might not be the last to try. Steve Trent, from London’s Environment Justice Foundation, believes that worldwide governments who have helped create the carbon emissions need to accept responsibility for the threat posed by global warming to populations like the I-Kiribati.

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An uprooted tree near Naa, North Tarawa

As salt water starts to inundate Kiribati, the coconut trees begin to die, and buildings collapse. On Tarawa, there is a meeting hall where the I-Kiribati worship, learn and even play bingo; this has already been flooded during a “king” tide. “We will lose our homeland unless the ocean stops rising,” Tong told Bloomberg Businessweek. “It’s very simple. We want to stay home. This is where the spirits live. This is where we’re from.”

For more photographs and information on the I-Kiribati, as well as colorful insights into their way of life, we highly recommend Jon Lewis and The Scissors Collective’s multimedia website Portraits from the Edge.
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19

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