Power of the ocean (by Nic Maclellan)

This story will be part of a climate report currently being prepared by Oxfam. The report will look at the impacts of climate change on our Pacific neighbours and is due for publication in August 2009.

School teacher Tangaroa Arobati, from the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati, has a deep respect for the power of the ocean. As a teenager, he was lost at sea with two companions, drifting in a fishing boat for 29 days. Today, living at Teaoraereke on Tarawa atoll, his concerns about the ocean focus on climate change and sea level rise.

School teacher Tangaroa Arobati is raising awareness of climate change in Kiribati. Kiribati is a low-lying atoll country and is at serious risk if sea levels rise.

The potential impacts are striking when you visit South Tarawa, a narrow strip of land, 40 kilometres long but only 50 - 100 metres wide. With most land areas only a few metres above sea level, the government of Kiribati sees adaptation to climate change as a central challenge for the country’s future.

“There are many things that affect our livelihood as the population increases in South Tarawa. We’re worried about water, and how the supply of fresh water will be sustained,” says Tangaroa. “At present, much of our water is piped from a reserve near Bonriki airport, but with growing population, the supply to people at the other end of the atoll in Betio is a problem.”

Many villagers rely on bores to draw water from the fresh water reservoir under the atoll, but people are worried whether it is drinkable, due to contamination and salinity.

As a geography teacher at St. Louis High School, Tangaroa began to take more interest in the ways the changing environment impacts on community wellbeing: “First, climate change was just an interesting topic, but then it captured me. The questions from my students touched me. I have a child. I teach young students. It’s their future, so I had to do something.”

In November 2007, members of the Catholic Diocese of Tarawa and the Kiribati Protestant Church (KPC) organised a public march on South Tarawa, to raise awareness of climate change. Members of church youth groups organised songs, banners and placards, and marched to a central point in Bairiki – the business centre of South Tarawa – where they were addressed by the Minister of Education and church leaders.

“We are starting slowly to share our knowledge of the science that we try to understand,” he says. “At first some students were scared about the threat, but now they’re interested, they work in groups, and they share their understanding with their families and their elders.”

In December 2007, with the support of Pacific Calling Partnership, Tangaroa joined a delegation of young people from Kiribati who travelled to Bali to attend the UN Climate Change conference and to tell the world that their low-lying atoll country was at the forefront of climate change.

At a side meeting to the main conference, Kiribati dancers highlighted the resilience of their culture, while Tangaroa spoke of the threats to the environment and economy of his homeland:

“I went to Bali to present our views. This was my chance to talk about climate change from my experience. For me it’s all about human beings, who we are and how we will live in the future.”