On March 3, 2014, giant waves, known as "king tides," crashed over the shore of Kiribati, a country made up of 33 coral atolls located halfway between Australia and Hawaii.
Mariston Ioabo, who was 7 years old at the time, found it funny – and exciting. He recalls laughing at his cousin who lived next door, her house full of seawater, and the family's belongings bobbing on the water's surface.
Ioabo remembers crying to his mother for a drink later that day. She told him the water in his family's well was contaminated. That's when he learned that the situation was actually serious and dangerous.
"I was restless, especially when I heard the loud sound of the roaring waves breaking on the shore," said Ioabo, who is now 12 years old. "The incident I described still worries me. I could easily die if a big wave pours on us in our sleep because my land is small and very low and close to the sea."
If you're thinking Ioabo's fears are unfounded, don't. According to research commissioned by the Pacific-Australia Climate Change Science and Adaptation Planning (PACCSAP) program of the Australian government, Kiribati, which lies just six feet above sea level, is one low-lying Pacific nation that may be under water within a few decades. PACCSAP scientists predict Kiribati's future climate may include a rise in sea level between 5 and 14 centimeters by 2030, and between 20 and 58 centimeters by 2090 – if greenhouse gas emissions remain high.
Rising sea level is just one effect of climate change, a term used by scientists, politicians, and experts to describe changes in the Earth's climate caused by human activities.
The mix of gases in the atmosphere that keeps the temperature on earth suitable for life is called the 'greenhouse effect.' It's a good thing. However, according to PACCSAP, over the past 250 years, humans have been raising the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, mostly by burning fossil fuels. The main offenders are factories, trucks, boats, planes, and cars. As a result of the increase in industrial activity, the emission of greenhouse gases has grown ten-fold. Extra greenhouse gases have heightened the greenhouse effect, resulting in global warming, which leads to climate change.
"Developed countries produce a high percentage of the world's gas emissions, said Teruabine Anna Nuariki, a volunteer youth coordinator at Kiribati Climate Action Network and board member at The Pacific Island Climate Action Network, a non-profit organization that supports Pacific island countries as they advocate for climate justice. "This is an is ethical and political issue that needs to be discussed at a global level so that solutions can be found and implemented to avoid or limit the danger that climate change will cause to our land and our lives."
In Kiribati, well water, is the only source of fresh water for many people.
Mariston's community's wells were black with contamination. They boiled the water but still drank it because they had no other water to drink.
Drinking saline and contaminated water causes an increase in waterborne and airborne diseases. "Children are mostly affected, since they're so vulnerable," said Nuariki.
As a result of rising sea levels, food crops are also destroyed by seawater. Kiribati already has poor soil, said Nuariki. Fruit crops can't bear fruits, so people are relying on imported goods.
Teraiman Rubo, 18, who lives on the island of Maiana, knows this first hand.
When seawater interacts with freshwater, it causes the soil to dry, she said. The amount of salt dissolved in the freshwater isn't natural. It destroys fruit crops.
Foods, such as fruits and coconuts, that people in Kiribati traditionally rely on, are at risk. Items like rice and flour have to be imported. Seeing the fruits die and fall from the trees makes Rubo especially sad.
"If this never stops, I can predict what will happen in the next five or 10 years. Developed countries that continuously enjoy competition for power among themselves will forget about smaller, vulnerable countries like Kiribati who will suffer the consequences of their greed for power," she said
Another problem is that people living near the shore are uprooted from their homes and become refugees on their own island, said Nuariki.
Maritina Nakekea, 19, who lives on the island of Marakei, feels uncomfortable whenever a high tide comes.
"It carries away our land through erosion. It's taking our human rights away by uprooting our homes and forcing us to move inland against our will," Nakekea said, explaining how the migration inland causes dangerous fighting because of overcrowding.
"It is a sad experience because fighting for land to live on causes disputes in the family. I believe that if the land had not been disturbed by the effect of climate change, people would live happily and comfortably."
According to Nuariki, there are many resources available on climate change that focus on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, but very few are specific to Pacific islands.
It's important to slow down globally, but it's important at the local level, too. "Fighting climate change is everybody's responsibility."
"Various government and Non-profit organization outreach programs are designing behavioral awareness strategies to help build and enhance resilience of Kiribati's most vulnerable people.
For example, The Ministry of Education has implemented climate change lessons in Kiribati's national education curriculum. Younger students like Mariston Ioabo work together to plant the vegetables that better tolerate drought, salt, heat, or heavy rain, such as cabbage, said Ioabo. Older students research effects of climate change on Kiribati, concentrating on what actions they can take at a local level to adapt or reduce risk. Students also learn how to make people aware of the benefits of their efforts.
The goal is to bring awareness to the children on what climate change is and how to cope with it in their lives, said Nuarik.
Kiribati is a Christian country. Both Iaobo and Nuariki explained that the community puts its trust in God. Many people in Kiribati believe that they will continue to live in Kiribati. However, others, such as students who understand climate change, have a different view:
"We young people are encouraged by our teachers to study hard so that we can get good jobs in the future and go overseas," Ioabo said.
Nuariki believes, "most Kiribati people who have been migrating to other countries are motivated to leave Kiribati because they are afraid that Kiribati will one day be covered by the sea."
The challenge to save Kiribati is a large one, the people who live on the islands are unified in one thought. They believe Kiribati is on the front line of a deadly attack from developed countries. The weapon is greenhouse gas emissions.
In their minds, the solutions are clear:
We, Kiribati people are victims of developed nations' activities, so we are asking them to stop hurting us and our country. They are causing our land to sink, said Nakekea.
"It will break my heart if there is no more Kiribati, I will be very sad as I will lose my culture and identity," said Nakekea.
Rubo, who said the things she would miss most about Kiribati are traditional dances and handicrafts, the smiling faces of its people, and welcoming visitors to her special country, she simply wants a better place to live in the future.
She repeats Nakekea's message: "Please cut down greenhouse gas emissions so that we can stay longer and enjoy the beauty of our culture and country."
As for Mariston Ioabo, he just wants to be able to sleep at night.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Maddie Rhoden, 17, is an iGeneration Youth reporter who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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