Kiribati and Tuvalu will drown without global climate action

The causes of climate change are far from their shores, but these tiny Pacific nations face growing social strife and eventual annihilation unless western governments wake up and take responsibility, argue Scott Leckie and Dan Lewis

Tessie Eria Lambourne’s bright smile belies a deeper sense of unease for which she as the secretary of Kiribati’s foreign ministry is responsible for imparting to the wider world. Lambourne is entrusted with no small task; she and her government face a choice no government should ever have to make. Fight or flight? The issues her government faces are both unprecedented and extraordinarily complex.

Ms Lambourne’s brief essentially entails nothing less than determining whether to fight for the very survival of her homeland or to pursue options overseas for the country’s threatened citizens. This is the new dilemma in a world where ever more people are facing the prospect that their homes and lands will be lost forever. Especially so in the case of atoll nations such as Kiribati and Tuvalu. The choice to battle the rising seas or set one’s families up in larger, distant nations is a very real one facing everyone in these two lands.

Ms Lambourne is not alone in her fight. Officials in nearby Tuvalu also grapple with the same questions. The unparalleled political wrangle of securing the best possible future for the entire populations of both countries, while watching rising seas from dwindling shorelines, is a mighty one.

Interestingly, though, while Kiribati is pursuing a multi-dimensional policy, combining the protection of shorelines, the construction of new neighbourhoods to ease overcrowding in the capital Tarawa, and labour-mobility programmes designed to provide improved employment options to those choosing to relocate to countries such as New Zealand or Australia, it appears that Tuvalu, at the government level at least, is taking a stand to stay and fight until the bitter end.

Lack of resources

Two of the smallest countries in the world, Kiribati and Tuvalu are also the ones with most to lose. Sadly, they have access to few resources to overcome the threats already evident along their shores. Additionally, in-migration from outer islands to the urban settlements of Betio in Kiribati and Funafuti in Tuvalu complicate an already strained environment.





The flat coastlines of Pacific nations offer a huge challenge to those tackling rising sea levels. Photo: Scott Leckie

The emergence of squatter settlements have increased densities, exacerbated health problems, put extraordinary pressure on limited water and sanitation systems, and compromised customary obligations of responsibility for extended family. The reason, as in all countries, is the perception that livelihoods, social opportunity and access to development opportunities are greater in urban contexts, and the result follows urbanisation trends globally.

The nexus of urbanisation and climate change, whatever the causes, is happening in both countries. Measurable changes in meteorological systems producing stronger and more frequent storms; disruption of rainfall patterns; rising sea temperatures – all contribute to increased vulnerability in every country in the world, and are particularly acute in the fragile slivers of crowded land that make up atoll countries such as Kiribati and Tuvalu.

Perhaps no other nations are as comprehensively threatened by climate change as these two. Preserving them, and protecting the full spectrum of human rights of the people of these tiny specks of green in the middle of the Pacific, is a challenge to which we all must rise.


Apula, a seafarer returning home to Tuvalu after nine months on the high seas, sees things differently though. A former government conservation officer, Apula left home for the maritime salary that could guarantee his wife and children future prosperity in New Zealand, which he could never acquire in the islands. Like him, many within the younger generation of Tuvaluans are increasingly inclined towards migrating to New Zealand or Australia than building up the nation’s defences against increasing erosion, higher seas and consequent deepened risk from more frequent tsunamis, king tides and severe weather.

Unlike the elders' fatalistic adherence to the biblical promise of Noah’s being the last flood, more and more people feel as Apalu does, that the eventual and complete evacuation of Tuvalu is the only answer if young and old are to get the most out of what life has to offer.

A gregarious Kiribati education official, Kevin Rouatu, sums up the reality of climate change in these countries such as this: 'Help us not to abandon our beloved Kiribati, but if we have to leave, please invite us in.' Despite the serious development and climate-change challenges facing them, the peoples of Kiribati and Tuvalu want nothing more than to know their countries will have a future. They do not want to flee but know they may have to should predictions of sea-level rises turn out to be true. And more than anything they do not want charity.

The truth, of course, as always, is that there is a middle way, and in the case of the options open to Kiribati and Tuvalu, in fact, there are several. Talking with scores of atoll-dwellers in both island nations, it is piercingly clear that there is no simple way of ensuring that everyone will get to live the life they wish to.

Bleak future

Grappling with everything from the complete loss of sovereignty and national territory to more personal issues such as poor and overcrowded housing, declining health conditions, the loss of supplies of fresh water and how to boost fledgling tourism, Kiribati and Tuvalu deserve a far better shake from the world than they have received to date. Millions across the globe have demonstrated loudly against climate change and for the preservation of atoll and other nations affected by rising seas and land-loss; few, however, are aware of what they can do to best help these two nations protect the rights of all of their citizens and, at the same time, secure a future for these territories.

The world can and should do much to simultaneously boost the development fortunes of Pacific Island citizens, while protecting these nation states against the ravages of changing climate and rising seas. Though the effects of climate change are caused far from the shores of both Kiribati and Tuvalu, the day-to-day responsibilities for preparing for the looming crisis rests squarely with their respective governments, headed by Anote Tong in Kiribati and Apisai Ielemia in Tuvalu. And they have not been idle; far from it.

In Kiribati, the reinforcement of sea walls by the Kiribati Adaptation Programme, the development of a Sustainable Towns Programme to assist in reducing overcrowding in Betio Town, which now has a population density equivalent to Hong Kong, and the beginnings of small-scale land-reclamation are all indicative of a government that has not been waiting for the world to act. The government of Kiribati is costing all possible adaptation measures to save the country, everything from artificial islands to the reclamation of large swathes of new land through aggregate mining in the lagoons of Tarawa.

Holding back the tide

Similarly in Tuvalu, recent programmes to provide 4,000-litre water tanks to each household have proven successful, as has the government’s leading and vocal role in international negotiations on climate change at Copenhagen and beyond. A new sea wall being built by Japan stands a chance of greatly improving the survival prospects of the capital Funafuti, home to half the country’s population. Not a small effort for a country of only 10,000 inhabitants.

Overriding throughout both countries, however, is a wide array of opinion, conjecture and worry – what is the ‘right’ thing to do? Both Kiribati and Tuvalu are among the world’s most threatened nations, of this there can be no doubt. Whatever the outcome, they both have far more than rising seas to grapple with. What they need now is a sustainable development boost that significantly raises the standard of living of their societies as a whole, while preparing their defences for climate-induced threats.

Without this, social conditions – in particular housing and service delivery – will worsen, and the investments required for successful climate adaptation will merely delay the inevitable demise of these Pacific nations, which their citizens are justifiably proud to call home.

Scott Leckie is the founder and director of Displacement Solutions ( Dan Lewis is the chief of the disaster and post-conflict section of UN Habitat ( Both authors recently returned from field missions to Kiribati and Tuvalu examining climate-displacement issues.

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