Kiribati, In the middle of the Pacific
By David Gray
The first sign you see of the equator-hugging central Pacific island nation of Kiribati (pronounced Kir-i-bas), is a small patch of green that breaks the seemingly endless monotony of blue that is the Pacific Ocean. Tropical storm clouds fill the sky, rising so high you feel uncomfortably small. Descending, the tiny atolls that reach just a few meters above sea-level at their highest point and make up this small island nation, come into focus, and even from this height, it is obvious that land is an extremely precious commodity out here in the vastness of an ocean that is cut by the International Date Line.
The immigration check once you are inside the quaint arrival hall is made up of just two small palm-leaf stands marked “Visitors” and “Residents.” The rental car, which should be called a “borrow” car, is waiting for me in the dusty car lot out the front, with the key handover no more than an acknowledgment that I am staying at the motel I have named. Showing some identification, let alone a driver’s license, is not even a thought – just a welcoming smile and a handshake will suffice. I think it best to ask how to find the motel and I am told: “Well, just keep heading down the one road we have on the island, and you won’t miss it.”
Upon arriving at the motel, I meet up with David Lambourne, a well-informed local who moved to Kiribati’s capital Tarawa some 18 years ago from Australia, to discuss the problems facing the nation. Including the possible catastrophic scenario that one day Kiribati could possibly become uninhabitable under the weight of its own population and an ever encroaching sea. David tells me this is a real possibility, especially for the small group of atolls that make up South Tarawa.
Tarawa is broken into two sections, north and south. David takes me to the village of Betio which lies in the south and is already dealing with a population density greater than that of London, England (currently standing at around 5200 people per square kilometer), but amazingly population growth forecasts for the area say this could double in less than a decade. Betio’s small homes are mostly made from bits of corrugated-iron and panels of wood nailed together. You get the impression these are shelters for temporary accommodation. But David tells me that not only are these homes decades old, the chances that they will change in the future is highly unlikely.
But this is not the biggest concern for these homeowners. The lack of a sewerage system does not lend itself to a clean environment. The area had an outbreak of cholera in the late 70′s, and some are worried that with present sanitation levels, it could easily happen again. The local fresh water supplies come from shallow “lenses” located just below the surface, with hundreds of wells scattered between the ramshackle huts. But the quality of water from these wells is becoming more polluted as a result of ground-based pollutants and rising sea levels creating salinity problems. This also means that growing any types of food crops has become extremely difficult.