"Atolls are one of Earth's more marginal human habitats. Only the most knowledgeable and careful use of resources enables inhabitants to claim a living from these small islands composed, quite literally, of coral rubble and sand." —from Unity of the Heart by Keith and Anne Chambers
Kiribati, Tokelau and Tuvalu are small island nations located in the central Pacific Ocean approximately halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. Their tiny land footprint is spread over an expanse of water nearly 5,000 miles wide. Visited by few outsiders, they are among the most remote places on Earth.
With their abundant supply of fish and coconuts and stunning ocean vistas, Kiribati, Tokelau and Tuvalu appear to be a tropical paradise. Temperatures on the islands average around 82 degrees Fahrenheit, and easterly trade winds cool the humid air. Typical of tropical climates, all of the islands experience seasonal periods of intense rain as well as occasional drought.
What is an Atoll?
Each nation is made up of a series of atolls, or coral reef islands. Atolls form over hundreds of millions of years as coral barrier reefs that formed around a volcano. In time, the volcano sinks beneath the sea leaving the coral surrounding an open lagoon. Most of the world's coral atolls are in the Pacific Ocean — some inhabited, others not. Islands are surrounded by what can feel like endless ocean. Because the land is only a few feet above the sea, voyagers can easily pass within a few miles of an atoll and never see it.
The lagoon of every atoll is unique. Some are so vast you can barely see the islands on the other side, while others are so small that they are completely encircled by land and look more like a lake. All are beautiful and provide a critical safe harbor for people living in atolls. When weather conditions do not allow one to go out to sea, islanders can fish in the calmer waters of the lagoon. The changing tides are powerfully evident in the lagoon. Ocean water is constantly moving in or out depending on the tide. As a result the waters within the lagoon are constantly replenished by fresh ocean water.
Problems and Solutions
Limited land has always been an issue for life in atolls. Since land is always held by clans, even if population increases, the land resource remains constant. It can also be said that even if one moves to the capital city or to another country, your ties to your family land can never be broken. Since independence, people seeking economic opportunity are moving to the capitals in Kiribati (Tarawa) and Tuvalu (Funafuti). Overpopulation on these islands are concern for both countries.
The Fakaofo atoll in Tokelau has a brilliant solution to overcrowding: all the residents live on one island; pigs live on a separate islet; another islet serves as the Catholic cemetery; and another for the Christian cemetery. In addition to these, there are many other islets where families grow coconut, breadfruit and taro. If you want to visit any of these islands, you jump in your skip outfitted with an outboard motor and cross the lagoon.
The lack of fresh water poses a major challenge to life on atolls. There are no streams, fresh standing water, or water tables underground. Since the islands are mostly made of coral sand (the bio-erosion of limestone), fresh water cannot be captured as we normally see in earthen soil. However, since fresh water is lighter than salt water, it can float on top of salt water. Islanders have survived over hundreds of years due to 'freshwater lenses' found just below the surface of the earth. Today people rely on rain water collected from roofs. It is common to see plastic cisterns in people's yards. In Tokelau, new home construction has enormous cinder block catchments serving as a foundation for the house. Only a few heavily populated atolls such as Tarawa have piped water supplies. With rising sea levels, groundwater becomes more scarce; what little there is frequently becomes brackish due to salt water intrusion.
The bounty of the sea and the abundant coconut palms provide for the basic needs of islanders. An abiding tradition of the interdependence of villagers and responsibility to the clan insures that no one goes hungry. Most families go to great effort to keep pigs or chickens for special feast days or as gifts to others. The hardy coconut, breadfruit and pandanas tree are among the only things that grow well on atolls and dominate the horizon when you view the islands at a distance. Taro and pulaka are considered essential for everyday meals as well as for feasts. They are grown in deep pits that reach down to the fresh water lens. These pits have been passed on through countless generations and belong to a family clan. Taro needs to be tended constantly, but despite the best efforts of the farmers, salt water intrusion into the water table eventually kills the plants. Since the 1970s, food imports such as corned beef, flour, and sugar from New Zealand and Australia as well as rice from Asia have become popular. There is evidence these food imports correspond to higher levels of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure among the populace.
Threats of Climate Change
Life on these islands requires a deep understanding of the ocean, lagoon and habitat. Historically, islanders were self-sufficient and did not rely on the outside world for their needs. Surviving drought, storm, heat waves, and loss of life at sea has created a strong and hearty culture. Will this be enough to prepare islanders for the monumental challenge of climate change? There is an increased effort to understand the science of climate change and islanders handle their situation with tremendous equanimity. The strength of their Christian religion gives them faith that their creator will protect them. Yet, sea walls are being built and recent spring tides are higher than in living memory. There has been flooding of homes, ruined taro pits, and the need to rebuild schools. Yet, there is no visible panic. Life appears to be stable and families adjust to the necessities of the here and now. Islanders have little control over the burning of fossil fuel around the world. They experience increased temperatures but cannot imagine a world filled with smog since their own skies are blue and appear unspoiled.
Generally, islanders concern themselves with the things they have some control over such as: improving education; methods of rain water catchment; ways to grow more diverse varieties of food; overcrowding; unemployment; nutrition-related health problems; disposing of imported plastics, metal and glass; and waste water treatment. Perhaps one of the most important concerns is the increased demand for personal income in response to the emerging marketplace of imported goods, food, electricity and gasoline. Islanders have developed a unique culture in response to their historic isolation and partake equally in both the difficulties and pleasures of daily life.
The goal of Water is Rising is to bring attention to the vulnerable situation of small island nations such as Kiribati, Tokelau and Tuvalu in the face of climate change. It is estimated that a sea level rise of 8–16 inches in the next 100 years could make the islands uninhabitable. Salt water not only rises on ocean and lagoon borders, but also percolates up through the porous limestone, soaking the islets from the inside out.
This rise in sea level not only contaminates freshwater supplies, but also threatens agricultural crops such as coconuts, taro and breadfruit. While rising sea levels reduce the amount of inhabitable land, warmer sea temperatures bleach the coral ecosystems that support the fish that the island people depend on for survival. Kiribati, Tokelau and Tuvalu have very limited natural resources. Therefore, incremental changes caused by climate change can have enormous effects on their lives.
At their highest edge, the islands rise about 6 feet above sea level. Tropical cyclones can destroy island habitat, homes and populations. The most recent of these was Cyclone Percy in 2005 which caused significant damage on Tokelau, eroding the coast, downing power lines, and destroying the only school on Nukununo. While no people were harmed, the coconut, banana, and pandanas harvests were severely damaged and a great number of livestock died because of the strong winds and torrential rains.
Short-range adaptation measures to climate change on the island include building and maintaining sea-walls to protect houses, improving rainwater harvesting techniques, and planting mangroves to decrease coastal erosion. Residents recognize, however, that they may be fighting a losing battle. The following videos address adaptation and the fight for survival in Tuvalu and Tokelau: Tuvalu - Climate Change Adaptation; Tokelau: Still Afloat on the High Seas.
As well as pursuing local measures for adaptation, the nations of Kiribati, Tokelau and Tuvalu are exploring their political options for migration. Tuvalu along with 43 other island nations formed the Alliance of Small Island States in 1990 to lobby for their interests regarding climate change. Tuvalu has also explored the possibility of obtaining environmental refugee status for its citizens. Kiribati has an active climate change adaption program supported by international advocates and the Japanese and Australian governments. Tokelau is hoping to pursue a program of voluntary migration to New Zealand under existing laws.
Scientists report that minimal changes in sea level rise measured by gauges installed on Funafati, Tuvalu may be due as much to geomorphologic changes as to actual sea level rise (see Yamano et al., 2007; SOPAC, 2006, 2007). There is no consensus on the islands themselves that climate change poses a serious risk. Some inhabitants have observed increasingly violent weather patterns, increased temperatures and saltwater intrusion into taro pits. Others attribute these phenomena to natural variations.
While scientists know that climate change will impact the islands, it is difficult to say how soon they will experience significant changes, and to what degree. Religious sentiments play a strong role in the commonly held belief among islanders that God will provide and protect them. In recent interviews, islanders recalled the story of Noah in the Bible and God’s promise that the earth would never again be destroyed by flood.
Strength and Survival
In addition to considering the affects of climate change in the future, we must also recognize that life on coral atolls has always been a process of adaptation. With limited resources and a small population, the people of the islands have survived droughts, famines, epidemics, cyclones, slave ships, and wars. Their ability to make use of what is available and pull together in times of need has served them well in dealing with both human interventions and environmental crises.
Despite the challenges, a strong sense of place ties many islanders to their homes. As expressed by Paani Laupepa, the former assistant secretary at Tuvalu's Ministry of Natural Resources, "We don’t want to leave this place. We don’t want to leave, it’s our land, our God given land, it is our culture, we can’t leave. People won’t leave until the very last minute." All of the island governments, however, are making some plans for migration. In this video, the President of Kiribati discusses long range plans to vacate the island as it becomes uninhabitable.