Half a world away from the hectic negotiations of the Paris Conference on Climate Change, high tides are the main topic of discussion for a Pacific couple visiting their family in New Zealand.
Rotitaake Tebiria and his wife Keene Rotitaake, from the island nation of Kiribati, are visiting their grandchildren in Manurewa in Auckland.
“I am happy to see my grandchildren growing up in New Zealand, but at the same time I feel sad for my grandchildren in Kiribati; life for them is difficult,” says Rotitaake.
Kiribati is one of a number of countries most affected by rising sea levels and has been dubbed the “conscience” of the Paris conference.
The couple first heard the term climate change in 2010 and it resonated deeply with their lived experience on the low-lying atoll.
One day the islands will be uninhabitable
“The changes happen so fast – high tides and storms are more frequent and more destructive than ever. One day the islands will be uninhabitable,” says Rotitaake.
They live on the outer island of Abemama (meaning the land of the moon light), but frequently visit Kiribati’s main island of Tarawa, where Keene works as a midwife. During the last king tide, seawater rose so high it flooded the hospital.
“The hospital has electricity, but they had to turn it off. We did our work with the water inside the ward. Some of the pregnant women were transferred to the central hospital. But those close to delivering babies were kept there. There was no light – I used a torch to deliver a baby,” Keene says.
On the island of Abemama, they have seen several houses washed away by high tides, and trees that used to bear coconut and breadfruit now stand bare.
“The seawalls seem to be the only way to protect my land, but we build them with stones that are not strong enough to withstand the tides. We need concrete, but we can’t afford it.
“If there was some money to help us, we would build a sea wall. It is the only way we know of adapting, of protecting the islands. But we don’t know how long it would last,” says Rotitaake.
As the seawater reaches further inland, the salt poisons traditional foods such as taro and breadfruit.
“Our foods are fish, breadfruit, coconuts and babai (taro). But not everyone can grow local foods now, so they depend on imported items like rice. But we still need money to buy it. Our main source of income is coconut copra, but coconut trees are not as fruitful these days,” Keene laments.
Soon there will be no choice
Islands nations such as Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands are some of the first places being seriously affected by rising sea levels. At the UN climate talks in Paris, Kiribati’s President Anote Tong told the BBC that many of the nation’s residents may have to migrate. He said the government was already “advocating migration with dignity”.
Rotitaake says he’s heard talk about leaving the islands, but believes many people would not like to abandon their country.
“Kiribati is where I belong. I love my country. But if things are getting worse, there is no choice. The developed countries are doing that – burning those fuels – but not the islands. We are facing disaster.”
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“In high seas or in low seas, I’m going to be your friend. In high tide or in low tide, I’ll be by your side.” - Bob Marley