A People on the Edge

Posted by in April's Magazine

The Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kir-i-bass) has been in the news recently not only for the much publicised arrival of Cyclone Pam but also because the country’s president, Mr. Anote Tong, has been calling on world leaders to help him find a new home for his people. If cyclones don’t finish Kiribati off, he says rising sea levels will: in less than 50 years the archipelago will almost certainly be under water. Through no fault of their own, the good people of Kiribati could be our first climate change refugees.

This is serious stuff. Yet, there is every chance you have no idea where Kiribati is. And you’d be forgiven for that lack of knowledge.


Kiribati is so remote that in 2012 the World Tourism Organisation listed it as the third least visited country in the world after Somalia and Nauru. And where exactly is it? Mr. H E Maude, anthropologist and Resident Commissioner of the country thirty years before it gained full independence from Britain in 1979, said of Kiribati  “… lost in the immensity of the Pacific ocean, it is a necklace of low coral atolls which straddle the equator and almost touch the 180th meridian.”

And why would anyone want go there? Well, because Mr. Maude also said Kiribati is “blessed with a superb climate, pleasantly warm without humidity, tempered by the constant bracing trade winds; and inhabited by the friendly and lovable Micronesian people.” It is where Herman Melville found the inspiration for his first work of pure fiction Mardi and H D V Stacpoole his exemplar for The Blue Lagoon.

In other words, unspoiled and beautiful, which is why, some years ago, when my husband and I wanted to get away from it all, we headed for South Tarawa, the capital. Not unlike Robert Louis Stevenson, who went to Kiribati (then The Gilbert Islands) over a hundred years before us, finding inspiration to write his story collection In The South Seas.

What was it like? Imagine a 15-kilometre beach covered in coconut palms, blue skies and lots of gentle breezes. No shops to speak of, no cinema, no theatre, no library, no office blocks, no TV, no mobile phones, no social media and only the barely audible BBC world service for news. For entertainment nothing but the delightful company of the friendly Kiribati people, delicious feasts of fresh grilled fish and mesmerising traditional dancing. And, when we got really homesick, a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate and some Old Lady’s Gin shipped into the country at ridiculous expense.

We loved it. But that’s not to say there were no problems. Although surrounded by half a million square miles of sea there was, ironically, very little fresh water in Tarawa. While our house had some plumbing and a flushing toilet (sometimes) most of the villages around us did not. The villagers used to use the beach as bathroom and toilet. Not good for obvious health reasons.

In news again soon
However around this time the United Nations declared Kiribati a Least Developed Country, or LDC: “They are the poorest and weakest segment of the international community.” As an LDC, Kiribati got financial help and expert advice on how to develop socially and economically and become less vulnerable. Problems like poor sanitation were to be a thing of the past. Twenty odd years on though, despite all the ‘expert advice’ from the world biggest and best aid agencies, the country’s problems have doubled along with its population. Catarina de Albuquerque – dedicated Special UN Reporter on the Right to Water and Sanitation – said after visiting Kiribati last year:

“A large proportion of the population in Kiribati still uses the sea and bushes as toilets. This has serious implications for people’s health, as human waste spreads diseases. Inadequate waste water management systems for existing toilets, a lack of hand washing habits and open defecation result in an explosive combination leading to many preventable child deaths, with the child mortality rate in Kiribati being the highest in the Pacific.”

And there’s more. Non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and obesity, have become Kiribati’s biggest killer, accounting for an estimated 68% of all mortality, with life expectancy in Kiribati listed as one of the lowest in the world at 64 years old (the four main contributory factors being tobacco use, physical inactivity, the harmful use of alcohol and unhealthy diets). There is also uncontrolled urbanisation and an alarming increase in incidents of domestic violence. And let’s not forget the mounting piles of rubbish on an atoll where there is no landfill, or that the sea walls are made of concrete, which contributes to the erosion of the low lying atolls instead of protecting them.

I’m not sure how the lovely people of Kiribati manage their day-to-day problems while still maintaining some sort of perspective on the wider threat of climate change, but they do, and with stoicism. In a global future full of uncertainty one thing is certain, the people of Kiribati will be in the news again sometime soon. Bruised they may be but they are yet to be counted out. Let us hail them.

Info: Marianne’s crime novel, Food of Ghosts, set in South Tarawa is available from www.pilrigpress.co.uk and Amazon

Twitter: @MWheelaghan

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