According to projections, within this century, the water will be higher than the highest point in our lands…For our people to survive, then they will have to migrate. Either we can wait for the time when we have to move people en masse or we can prepare them—beginning from now…
—Anote Tong, president of Kiribati
The tiny Pacific nation of Kiribati is among countries that are most vulnerable to the world’s changing climate. Sea level rise, coastal erosion, soil salinization and extreme weather events—all of which are proving climate-change scientists’ worst predictions—existentially threaten a country that lies just a couple of meters above sea level. Indeed, most experts agree that the country could disappear under the sea within decades. Where this leaves the population of just over 100,000 people remains to be seen.
A stark example that the dangers of climate change are real can be found in the village of Tebunginako, in the Abaiang atoll. The village has been dubbed by the country’s government a “barometer for what Kiribati can expect in the future.” Since the 1970’s, the villagers have seen the sea steadily rise beneath their feet. Eventually, the erosion became so great that the majority of the village had to be abandoned. This does not bode well for the rest of the low-lying country.
Near South Tarawa, Kiribati’s official capital, more villages are slowly beginning to disappear under the inching sea water. Among others, Tebikenikoora is a village which suffers from flooding every high tide. Before each high tide, locals park their cars in high areas of the village and stay in their homes. There’s little to do but wait.
Trying to fight their fate, the country’s government has started the “Kiribati Adaptation Program.” The aim is to reduce the country’s vulnerability to climate change by raising awareness, assessing and protecting available water resources as well as managing inundation. Concrete initiatives include coastal management protection measures—such as mangrove re-plantation—as well as the protection of dwindling (fresh)water resources. Just in 2011, over 37,000 mangroves were planted across the country. But will it be enough?
Although there are still debates among scientists about the exact cause of sea level rise, Kiribati’s people have no time to lose. The government has begun looking for a place to relocate the entire nation in the event that the country disappears beneath the waves. In May 2014, Kiribati purchased land in Fiji for $8.77 million. In the event that the Pacific Ocean begins to definitively drown the nation’s people, they have their first fallback location. But in the mean time, can anything else be done?
Editor’s Note: Vlad Sokhin’s photographs were shown at the Angkor Photography Festival and Workshops, which ran from December 5 to December 12, 2015 in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Roughly once per week in the lead-up to the festival, LensCulture featured a different part of the Festival’s program. If you missed our previous features, you can find them all through the festival’s LensCulture profile.