In these beds, women were either in the process of giving birth or recovering from labour. They and their newborn babies were forced to relocate further inland, to a sports stadium. Women and babies had to share the stadium with other hospital patients, and with no time to assemble screens, there was no privacy – but at least they were safe for now.
The king tide came shortly before Cyclone Pam brought severe damage to Kiribati and utter devastation to Vanuatu in March. It was unusual, because it rose three metres high on a clear, calm and sunny day, and came from the lagoon rather than the open ocean side of the island.
This is one of the stories that I heard on my recent trip to the Pacific Island nation. I was there as a guest of Pacific Calling Partnership, to understand first hand the impacts of climate change on one of the most vulnerable nations on earth. Tarawa atoll is the capital of Kiribati and is where I spent most of my time. It is only three metres above sea level at its highest point, 45 km long at the widest point and is densely populated with 55,000 inhabitants.
Kiribati is a string of 32 atolls and a coral island spread out along the equator to the North East of Australia. I was overwhelmed by the resilience, optimism, warmth and generosity of the people and the richness of their culture. It is seafaring nation and one where people have deep connections to the land – land is identity.
While king tides have always been part of life in Kiribati and other Pacific Island nations, including Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, in recent times they have been exacerbated by climate change. The sea level itself has risen due to climate change, so at high tide the water comes still higher than in the past. When a high tide is accompanied by a storm surge – a rise in the sea caused by strong winds and low atmospheric pressure – the consequences can be devastating.
Kiribati will be one of many countries coming together in Port Moresby for the Pacific Islands Forum from 7 September, the region’s premier meeting at which climate change will be high on the agenda.
A representative of the Australian Government is also expected to attend, and will most certainly have to defend their government’s woefully inadequate action on climate change, amongst nations most affected by it despite having done the least to cause it.
The Beito hospital that was evacuated now has a sea wall protecting it. But the arrangement of sea walls on Tarawa Island is haphazard. Some are strong and supported by different religious communities to protect their properties. Others are built to protect vital infrastructure such as sections of the road, which are frequently washed away, making it difficult to transport goods and aeroplane fuel from the port in the south of the island to the villages and airport in the north.
Yet other areas have basic or no protection at all. This intermittent arrangement of sea walls leaves unprotected areas more vulnerable. Members of Ton Matoa – the ‘Strong Warriors’ disability group that is active around climate change – told me of their struggle to stay safe as the waters lapped into their communal sleeping and meeting place.
These stories were fresh in my mind when I met with the President, Anote Tong, who eloquently described the plight of his people. He spoke of his commitment to ensuring Kiribati did not disappear entirely, adding that the challenge of acting on climate change is “a test of humanity,” adding that “it is not such a difficult test”.
The President spoke about the UN climate change meeting in Paris at the end of the year needing to deliver “a package for the vulnerable” – not just an agreement that reduced emissions from countries but also included support for poor countries already affected by climate change.
Because sea walls, evacuation centres fresh water tanks, filtration systems, and gardens raised or planted in areas where the sea water has not poisoned the soil, are adaptation measures that all cost money.
Really, the entire island needs a seawall around it. And as the President says, parts of Tarawa need to be raised so that people can be evacuated to higher ground when needed.
Lifesaving projects are under way, but the need is greater than the available funding. Extended family covers up the real extent of the destruction, as relatives come to Tarawa atoll to stay with family when their island becomes too difficult to inhabit. And families living abroad send remittances to assist their family members in Kiribati to cope with climate impacts and emergencies.
Forced relocation is seen as a last resort, and a sign of failure to address this issue by the global community. If it comes to this, the i-Kiribati people want to leave their home with dignity.
Over the coming months, as the UN climate change meeting approaches, Australia must decide whether to maintain its backward and ultimately self-defeating stance on climate change, or become a responsible international citizen by making a serious commitment to transitioning away from fossil fuels, providing greater financial support for vulnerable communities, such as those I visited on Tarawa atoll, and working constructively towards a new global climate agreement.
For the sake of the women of Kiribati giving birth to the next generation, and for all women, men and children across the globe, I hope that we pass the test of humanity of which President Tong spoke – our collective survival depends upon it.
Helen Szoke is the Chief Executive of Oxfam Australia.
This opinion editorial was first published in mamamia on 29 August 2015.