Kiribati: Living on The Edge

The Republic of Kiribati is made up of 33 tiny islands spread across an enormous expanse of the equatorial Pacific. Life has never been easy scrounging for food and water on narrow ribbons of land that rise, on average, little more than six feet above the sea. It’s going to be more difficult, if sea levels rise three feet or more this century, as scientists predict. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

More than half of Kiribati’s 110,000 people live on the capital island of Tarawa. It’s a heavily developed string of islets connected by causeways in various states of disrepair. The deep blue Pacific Ocean sits on one side, the shallow aquamarine lagoon on the other. From any place on the atoll, the water is always a short walk away. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

Many people on South Tarawa crowd into shantytowns like this one. The Kiribati government predicts South Tarawa’s population will double in 15 years, a combination of high birth rates and migration from outer islands. The Kiribati culture makes it taboo to refuse the request of a relative. So many households pack dozens of extended family members under one roof, as relatives are attracted to the lights and cash-economy of the capital island. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

Flooded villages are common in Tarawa. A high tide that arrived with the full moon on October 9 breached the beach’s protective berm of sand surprising residents of Teaoraereke Village with thigh-deep seawater just before sunrise. Image by Matua Kamori. Kiribati, 2014.

Floodwaters lapped against the floorboards of a traditional Kiribati house, built on stilts made of pandanus wood with a thatch roof. One girl floated by her home using section of a tractor tire. A boy navigated the waters by turning a suitcase into his watercraft. Image by Matua Kamori. Kiribati, 2014.

By mid-morning, the seawater had begun to recede, leaving behind sodden belongings and ruined local crops. The banana and papaya trees, the tomatoes and peas all turned brown and died, from salt poisoning. The swirling mix seawater, human and animal waste poured into freshwater wells, further tainting the local source of freshwater. Such flooding, taking place after only an average eight-inch rise in sea levels, is often a result of settling in indefensible bottomlands or stripping the beach of its natural protective sand barrier by people scavenging sediment for building materials. It shows the vulnerability of the Kiribati people, carving out a life just a few feet from the sea. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

Kiribati President Anote Tong prepares for a cabinet meeting in his office in South Tarawa. Tong has crossed the globe, making speeches to call attention to his nation’s plight and shame industrial powers for failing to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, Tong completed the purchase of 8½ square miles of hilly terrain in Fiji as an investment, a place to grow food, and also possible refuge for his people, should it come to that. He believes the Kiribati diaspora is inevitable and wants his people to be able to migrate with dignity. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

Four-year-old Aberam Maerere plays on the concrete block corner of a house that was claimed by the sea. The community of Te Bikenikora has lost dozens of homes in recent years to erosion and the advancing sea. The local church has elevated its foundation by 18 inches so parishioners could stay dry at high tide. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

Every parcel of land is claimed on South Tarawa, forcing newcomers to settle in precarious places or on land reclaimed from the sea by building seawalls and then backfilling with sand and coral rubble mined from the beach. Experts say the development is unsustainable, increasing residents’ susceptibility to erosion and inundation. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

Cemeteries are full in South Tarawa so people bury their relatives in their yards. The sand grave, marked by buried soy sauce bottles, is the first stop. After years of decomposition, a relative’s bones are excavated, washed, oiled and placed in a communal grave beneath the concrete slab. Here the family crypt doubles as a playroom for the many decedents in the shantytown in Betio, South Tarawa. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

Where to stash all the trash? It’s one of the issues living on a slender strip of land in the middle of the Pacific. There’s no place to bury it on South Tarawa so it gets piled up here, to be covered later. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

Only two commercial airline flights a week land in Kiribati capital island of Tarawa, a spectacle that attracts curious crowds, mostly children. Kiribati is remarkably remote, its islands straddling the equator halfway between Hawaii and Australia. The commercial flights come from Fiji. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

Broken cars usually are abandoned where they fail, victims of age, missing parts, the corrosive power of a merciless sun and sea spray. Some rusting hulks have been moved to a yard near the port, in hopes that they will eventually be shipped off island. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

Failing to keep the sea at bay with pilings made of palm trees, a family abandoned its lagoon-side home on the island of Abaiang. The Kiribati population is growing rapidly, forcing more families to live on the edge. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

The coconut tree provides the main cash crop, dried coconut meat, or copra, for export in an industry heavily subsidized by the government. The flowering stems are also snipped and shaved by Kiribati men who collect the sap. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

The sugary fluid is a staple drink called toddy. It’s often fermented into a cheap alcohol called sour toddy. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

Tarawa is one of the Gilbert Islands, which was a longtime British protectorate until the British Phosphate Commission played out its rock phosphate mine on nearby Banaba Island and granted Kiribati its independence in 1979. Since then, the schools and other public services have fallen into disarray. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

A few big guns remain on the island of Betio, rusting relics from World War II’s bloody Battle of Tarawa. More than 1,600 marines and sailors lost their lives taking this tiny atoll from the well-fortified Japanese. The U.S. Pacific Fleet misjudged the tides in the 1943 assault. Its landing craft got hung-up on the reef, forcing marines to wade hundreds of yards across the lagoon’s chest-deep water under heavy Japanese fire. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

The new battle of Tarawa will also involve the tides from the sea and also the waves of newcomers to the atoll. It’s unclear where the people will live, how many can stay, and how many will have to go. Image by Kenneth R. Weiss. Kiribati, 2014.

TARAWA ATOLL, Kiribati—They live their lives by the tides. Low tide is a time to travel to neighboring islets, walking or wading across intertidal channels that otherwise be passable only by boat. It’s a time wade onto the reef or tidal flats to collect sand worms or shellfish. It’s also the time to take advantage of the exposed beach commonly used as a toilet.

High tide washes away footprints or any other evidence that humans have left on the beach. It’s the easiest time to launch fishing boats. The advancing ocean, only steps from homes, becomes the backyard playground for children, a place for all to bathe and escape the equatorial heat.

The Kiribati people, a maritime culture, are comfortable with the sea. They are accustomed to the rhythm of the tides.

And yet the highest tides, especially those that arrive with the full moon, can cause trouble—especially when accompanied by wind-driven waves. Those who live closest to the water’s edge say troublesome tides come more often. All this is playing out long before this island nation has begun to experience the full brunt of the projected global rise in sea levels. It shows the vulnerability of the Kiribati people, carving out a life just a few feet from the sea.