President of Kiribati says Pacific atoll will 'most likely' become uninhabitable as sea level rises

"The most likely scenario is as the sea level rises our islands will become uninhabitable," Kiribati President Anote Tong told The Straits Times in an interview. PHOTO: KIRIBATI PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE

THE future looks bleak for low-lying Kiribati and its 100,000 residents and billions of dollars would be needed to save it from rising sea levels, according to the Pacific atoll nation's president.

"We don't have mountains and we can't build them, we don't have the resources," Mr Anote Tong told The Straits Times in an interview.

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There was a time Maldives master fisherman Adam Naseer could catch as many skipjack tuna with a pole and line as he could handle. But as the world warms, life’s no longer that simple. Naseer, 45 and other islanders face many challenges: Rising sea temperatures force the precious tuna out of reach. With global warming they face related phenomena such as abrupt weather shifts, intense storms and waves, all coupled with a creeping rise in sea level.

"How much we need depends on whether we want to maintain the integrity of all of the islands as they are. I don't think we can ever do that. Maybe we can bring in people to the closest islands, and build them up so at least there will be a chance for the people to survive whatever will come.

"But we are going to need billions of dollars, and tons and tons of goodwill," he said.

As in several other atoll nations in tropical ocean zones, the average elevation of Kiribati is just 2m. Sea level rise triggered by global warming threatens to drown the islands by about the year 2100, a prospect Mr Tong seemed to accept as inevitable.

"The most likely scenario is as the sea level rises our islands will become uninhabitable," Mr Tong told The Straits Times in an interview.

The 63-year-old President, who has been in power since 2003, spent US$8.7 million (S$11.7 million) in 2014 to buy land in Fiji to relocate Kiribati's population in a worst-case scenario - a move derided by critics as a waste of money.

But Mr Tong insists that well before any extreme rise in sea level, other phenomena associated with global warming - and exacerbated by sea levels just a few centimetres higher - will likely leave Kiribati for the fish.

"We experienced a rough time with Cyclone Pam at the beginning of this year. The question is, are these going to be incidents that will repeat themselves over time, and if that is the case, and if will they become more severe, then the opportunities for survival for countries like mine will be considerably reduced."

Within limited options, Kiribati is trying to promote resilience. Among the measures is to scale up the skills of its population so that they can become productive and competitive and can migrate with dignity, Mr Tong said.

He was not overly optimistic about the outcome of talks in Paris in December, when 196 countries will meet to negotiate a new climate change agreement.

"The technology is there. The question is will they (the global community) have the conscience to come to the support of countries that will definitely be affected. If they do, then we can continue to stay on for the next few decades."

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