When I found out I would be doing my Peace Corps service in Kiribati, I had no clue where that was (it’s in the Central Pacific Ocean) or how its name is pronounced (the “t” is actually like an “s”). I also had no idea what a coral atoll is (that’s what the islands of Kiribati are). I soon learned that they are narrow strips of land that can stretch for miles from tip to tip but are only about a quarter mile wide, on average. In some locations, you can stand in one spot and see the ocean both to your left and to your right.
Climate change and the rising ocean are having a significant impact on these low-lying islands. The problem is not that they are going to “sink” - what will probably force people to abandon them in the future is the saltwater intruding into the groundwater. Before I arrived there in 2007, the village of Ewena on the island of Abaiang was already dealing with brackish well water. One of my Health and Community Development projects was to team up with a group of nursing students to complete a water survey in the village; we found that half of the homes had brackish wells. To help overcome this problem, I worked with a village resident to write a grant for rainwater tanks. I have gone back to visit several times since I finished my service and I have been glad to see that there are now even more tanks. They have become a necessity as the wells have become increasingly brackish.
Although the rainwater tanks have been a solution to the problem of saltwater intrusion, they are not likely to be effective in the long-term. There have already been occasions when tanks have gone dry after periods of no rain and people have had to walk long distances to find freshwater wells. In addition, the intruding saltwater is decreasing the productivity of the plants people rely on for food: taro root, breadfruit trees, and coconut trees. It seems that it is only a matter of time before Abaiang and the other islands of Kiribati can no longer sustain human habitation.
It is heartbreaking to think that the people who were so warm and welcoming to me will have to leave their beautiful islands. I fell in love with Kiribati and with a woman I met there; although we now live half a world away, Kiribati remains close to our hearts. If you want to help the people of Kiribati, here are a few actions you can take:
Talk to others about Kiribati - many people have never heard of the country or of the challenges its people are facing.
Support legislation aimed at mitigating climate change (e.g. carbon pricing). If we can slow down climate change and the rise of the sea, the people of Kiribati will have more time to prepare to move elsewhere.
Support people’s right to migrate. Think of immigration as more of an opportunity than a threat. President Trump has proposed eliminating the Diversity Visa Lottery, but since when is diversity a bad thing?
I decided to join the Peace Corps because I believed that everyone has the power to make a difference. I still believe that today, and I believe we can help the people of Kiribati and others around the world to conquer the challenges posed by climate change.