Kiribati islands disappear beneath the waves

Phoenix descending

It covers a huge area of ocean sheltering some of the most beautiful islands in the world. It is a haven and a refuge for hundreds of unique species of plants, marine species, birds and animals. It is almost untouched by man.

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area is one of the largest marine protected areas (MPA) on the planet. It covers over 400 000 square kilometres of ocean and encircles many of the small outlying islands that are part of the 33 islands and atolls that make up the country known as the Republic of Kiribati. It is the first pacific island MPA to contain significant deep-sea habitat, including 8 atolls, and two submerged reef systems. Only one of the atolls is inhabited: Kanton-with a population of less than 50 people.

Created in 2008, the Phoenix International Protected Area or PIPA is an area of unsurpassed beauty. It is a unique repository of hundreds of species of birds, fish, and fauna, many found nowhere else on the planet. In 2010, the protected area was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The islands of Kiribati are way out in the Pacific–roughly midway between Fiji and Hawaii. Even so, thousands of tourists come to relax on the white sand beaches and slumber in the shade of a coconut palm alongside a crystal clear, sparkling blue, and limpid ocean. What could possibly disturb this idylic scene?

But Kiribati is threatened by a monster that lurks beneath the waves–like any well-scripted horror story. Sea levels in the Pacific have been rising faster than the global average. The islands are low-lying, mostly flat, and unprotected. Many of the islands are regularly overwashed by storm surges or just higher than normal tides. Those who follow the debates around climate change and read the fine print of the IPCC reports know that for these islands, their condition is terminal. The islands are drowning in slow motion—one small centimetre at a time.

In 2014, the government of Kiribati bough 20 km2 of land on Vanua Levu, one of the Fiji islands, in case its people cannot be moved internally. Kiribati has a policy called “migration with dignity” if its cluster of islands becoms uninhabitable. But it’s not ‘if’–it’s ‘when’.

Why then does a multi-island nation with not too long to live create the largest and most beatuiful marine park in the world? A protected area 100 ten times larger that the main island where its capital keeps a precarious foothold.

For some reason the images in my mind keep coming back to the Titanic. Its only the movie version, I know, but then what else do we have? The scene where the string quartet keeps playing even as the deck tilts up and the ship’s hull groans like a dying dinosaur as it breaks apart. Is this bravely heroic? Or should the musicians not have fought their way to a lifeboat like everyone else?

President Anote Tong is well aware of the irony. Kiribati has created a huge protected area, a pristine area of almost untouched Nature, that can perhaps be protected from Man, but not from Nature itself. Speaking of the islands encompassed by the protected area, he said: “It is right that they should should remain as the Creator meant them to be”. If this is so, then the Creator intended that they should eventually be returned to the sea. But isn’t that finally the best form of protection for this small piece of Paradise?

This scene of sad climate change theatre will be played out in the media over the next couple of decades. Unlike the Titanic, thousands of people will not die. No string quartet will accompany the slow subsidence and the eventual disappearance of the atolls and islands of the Phoenix protected area.

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