Sinking under a sea of humanity

Tarawa Diary

By Dev Nadkarni

Four and a half years ago, as I drive down the one single road that connects the line of thin, long atolls in Tarawa, Kiribati – a country that’s tipped to be consumed by the ocean because of rising sea levels – I can’t help but get that sinking feeling.

Last month, as I drive down that same single, much more potholed 30-km long road, that feeling of grim foreboding returns. But it’s not because of the rising waters of the calm, spectacularly blue-green Pacific Ocean. Rather, it’s because it looks as though the fragile atolls are sinking beneath the weight of the sea of humans that’s engulfing Tarawa faster than the increasingly frequent king tides.

Along with the far greater number of potholes and even more unmarked speed bumps that I can remember from my previous visit, the only change I notice is there are far more people, particularly young boys, girls and little children milling about on both sides of the long thin road that services what appears to be just one long unbroken, continuous settlement.

Migration from the outer atolls, erosion and encroachment by a rising tideline and the natural growth in population have conspired to make South Tarawa the densest place in not just the Pacific. Population density on Tarawa is more than twice that of Auckland or Sydney – almost equal to that of London. Paradoxically, it’s one of the world’s most isolated places, reachable only from Fiji, three hours’ flight away, just twice a week, barring a flight or two that turns up every other week from Nauru and Brisbane.

Kiribati has been the focus of dozens of TV shows in the past decade because it has been designated one of the most vulnerable islands to sea level rise caused by climate change. Tarawa’s highest point is just a few metres above sea level. Higher tidelines have caused erosion of the shoreline and flooded coconut groves, the increased salinity making any form of agriculture extremely difficult.

Changing weather patterns bring in irregular rainfall, the residents’ only source of freshwater other than meager groundwater reserves that are tending to taste increasingly salty with the rising tideline. Poor sewerage systems also cause seepage into the groundwater system making it unsafe for drinking without chemically purifying and boiling it. Most people store rainwater in tanks provided by aid agencies.

While the threat of climate change is real and the bulk of funds are targeted at mitigating its effects and adapting to it, the tiny nation’s other more pressing and perhaps far more serious problems are not receiving the attention they so urgently deserve.

Overpopulation and overcrowding are clearly the country’s number one problem. And that is the source of a range of other compounding problems that the country faces – but somehow, all these seem to play second fiddle to the climate change and rising sea levels frenzy that the global media has whipped up over recent years.

Ask the average i-Kiribati and they’ll tell you the problems of overpopulation, crowding, jobs, scarce food and water besides healthcare are far more serious and immediate than the prospect of becoming the first country to sink under the ocean because of rising sea levels.

The pressure on space is so great that ghettos reminiscent of Sao Paolo and Mumbai are beginning to form at many spots along the long thin road. Dwellings are starting to be built on stilts along the waterline in some places. There appears to be little planning if any at all and so sanitation, particularly around these burgeoning new dwellings are an obvious issue.

In an environment that has almost no infrastructure for industry or even a modest business other than retail, unemployment is sky high. One expatriate professional manager says it might be as high as 80 percent, though a government official puts it about 60. Of the 20 percent who are in the workforce, 80 percent are employed in government jobs.

Shipping connections are few and extremely unreliable, as in some other parts of the Pacific. A restaurant hand tells me that the country sometimes runs out of rice and other food supplies for four weeks at a time. Recently it ran out of cooking gas for several weeks. Occasionally, it also runs out of fuel. No wonder I find so many petrol stations – curiously, all of them unbranded – closed.

With no tourism industry – all tourism centers around the distant Kirtimati Islands, which attracts US nostalgia tourists interested in the island’s many intriguing WW-II relics – Tarawa has severely limited accommodation options. The only hotel, the state owned Otintaai, is in a pathetic state of disrepair but an Australian entrepreneur has apparently bid to partner with the government in restoring it back to health. No one I speak to is sure of the timelines though.

The only foreigners that descend on Tarawa and crowd out the overpriced, motel style accommodation are laptop, tablet and smartphone wielding aid agency types who stare at their screens and patter away at their keyboards in between morsels at the motel’s three-items-on-the-menu eatery. Not that smartphones work anywhere outside the accommodation areas. There is no mobile roaming in Tarawa, no television, no fancy places to hang out, no cinemas, no pharmacies (except at the hospital), not even a place to take a long walk except or some stretches of beach at low tide.

A visiting biologist tells me the potential health risks that the i-Kiribati face are extremely serious. With a mere semblance of a healthcare system, any serious outbreak of a serious contagious disease could large swathes of the population at great risk, he says. But the unrestricted imports of processed, canned foods laden with high salt, sugar and fat has already catapulted non-communicable diseases (NCDs) to endemic proportions. Obesity seems to be becoming the norm – particularly among young and middle aged women.

Food and water security are clearly the nation’s biggest issues followed by healthcare, early childhood and job creation. The country has a sizeable nest egg thanks to a fund created by proceeds of the sale of phosphate on the outer islands. But over the recent past, the government has had to dip into its principal for meeting its budgetary needs. It needs to watch out for fear of going its neighbour Nauru’s way.

Later this year, the United States plans to commemorate an anniversary of the Battle of Tarawa, when I believe it will help restore some of the rusting WW-II hardware on Betio at the southern end of Tarawa hopefully sparking some tourist interest.

As my plane takes off for Fiji, I can’t help but look at the receding line of atolls in the middle of the Pacific as a spectacular failure of aid and donor agencies around the world, most of whose efforts seem to have sunk like a stone to the bottom of the ocean while making their assortment of fancy consultants richer in both money wise and in terms of been there done that bragging rights.