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Kiribati: Community Development Builds Resistance to Climate Change

“The biggest question we are facing is whether it makes sense to spend resources on development for a country that will be underwater,” said Kiribati President Anote Tong.

Kiribati's president spoke on the challenges of meeting his people’s basic needs while also mitigating the destruction associated with rising sea levels at a meeting for local government leaders and island mayors. Though Kiribati has few resources, community-based development projects are helping villagers in the isolated islands adapt to changes caused by sea level rise.

The Republic of Kiribati, a series of 32 low-lying coral atolls and one phosphate island in the central Pacific, has an average elevation of less than three meters, making it especially vulnerable to any change in weather patterns and rising sea levels. The sea has infiltrated drinking water wells, inundated local crops and food sources, and it has forced families to rebuild houses further inland. Many are worried as the tides continue to rise faster than communities can adapt.

Kanawa Itinibara, 45, the village councilor for Kainaba Village, on the north end of Tarawa Island, is concerned because the seas inundated part of his village earlier this year.

“The village maneaba [meeting place] was flooded. Many breadfruit trees have died,” he said, “Many coconut trees have been uprooted. We asked for shoreline protection from the government for these areas but the help hasn’t come yet.”

The higher rising tide that Itinibara has noticed in his village is common across the islands, but the changes have become more drastic in the past few years.

“It is more frequently seen now, and it is always a concern whenever the tides start to come in,” he said.

In addition to a changing living environment, villagers have felt the economic impacts of the rising seas. On the outer islands of Kiribati, life is mostly subsistence-based. Many families live off the land and the sea, mostly eating fish, breadfruit, coconut and taro. Women can exchange woven thatched roofing and mats made from the leaves of the pandanus tree for imported products.

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