WILD Stories: Vanishing Nations
Island nations in the South Pacific stand at the front lines of the climate crisis. Residents are vulnerable to increasingly extreme weather patterns, including typhoons, heavy flooding, and severe drought. Once isolated societies grappling with globalization, they are now trying to figure out how to adapt to new issues related to climate change. Daily life and local traditions are transforming across the region. My project is about documenting this transitional period in the South Pacific and the effects these changes are having on its communities.
When I traveled to Kiribati for a month, I photographed and collected information about how rising sea levels are impacting the island. During my time there, I found many destroyed homes and learned that families had to build makeshift seawalls to protect their houses. As a result of the rising seawater, crops are smaller and water wells are contaminated. And while people of Kiribati are aware of the environmental changes, many don’t understand what is causing it.
Climate experts predict upwards of a one meter rise in average global sea levels over the next century. Though this may sound modest, the shift is quite alarming to low-lying Island Developing States like Kiribati, where the elevation is no more than two meters above sea level and the main source of water comes from underground aquifers. With the projected sea level rise, Kiribati could be uninhabitable in 50 to 60 years. The island is heavily populated and the president is now turning to the developed world to assist in a process of long- term migration. But with some 100,000 future climate refugees, countries like Australia and New Zealand remain hard-pressed to take on the burden of displaced peoples. The question of relocation remains unsolved.
I hope this project will inspire a policy shift towards the environment and climate refugees because I don’t feel that people fully understand the mass migration that will occur without immediate action. A report by Oxfam predicted that 75 million people in the Asia-Pacific region will be forced to relocate by 2050 if climate change continues unabated. The process is slow, but nonetheless urgent.
An overview shot of Maiana Island, one of the 33 low lying atolls of Kiribati. The average height above sea level for the island is less than 3 meters.
A disposed car in the lagoon on the island of Tarawa. As Kiribati moves toward a more modern economy, their consumption patterns are changing. As a result, the lagoon is heavily polluted by solid waste disposal.
A wedding celebration in Tarawa.
Young girls pick clams during low tide in Tarawa. There have been reports of a decrease in density of clams as well as size. This is a cause for concern because many families rely solely on the clams as a source of protein.
Iataake Totoki is the assisting agriculture officer on the island of Abaiang. He says that he intends to move either to New Zealand or Australia: “The higher we go the better,” he says. He explained that most people don’t want to leave Kiribati, but that if they understood what is going to happen they would be willing to move. According to him, it’s mostly just the educated people that fully comprehend the situation.
On the island of Abaiang, a coconut tree has fallen due to rising seas and land erosion.
Karekeata Bikeieta has been living in the village of Tebunginako for two years. At 32, she is a mother of nine. Her family’s house was destroyed in a flood and rebuilt at an elevated height in hopes of protecting it from damage in the future. She says she doesn’t want to relocate because she likes the area.
The village of Nanikai is home to one of two landfills on Tarawa that have been constructed in an attempt to manage the growing garbage disposal problems. The amount of disposable solid waste is increasing as lifestyles and consumption patterns being to mimic Western ways, with increasing levels of non-biodegradable materials such as cans, bottles, and plastics. Dumping waste on the seashores is the usual method of disposal and has resulted in severe pollution of various waterways and lagoons.
On the island of Abaiang, a village called Tebunginako has had to relocate because of rising seas and land erosion. This former fresh water lagoon is now inundated with sea water that’s killing the coconut trees. When a coconut tree dies, the decay starts at the top; first the fruit falls, then the leaves. All that is left is a desiccated trunk, cut off at half-mast. In the foreground, Mangrove trees have been planted by the government in an effort to hold the soil in place.
Island of Tarawa. A group of men emptying out contaminated water from a well. There is no public water system in Kiribati and people are highly dependent on the ground water wells. As sea levels have risen, many wells have become contaminated with salt water and can no longer be used.
Mangrove tree in the village of Buota. Mangroves trees can grow in salty coastal habitats in the tropics and subtropics. The planting of Mangrove trees is a strategy by the government to try to hold the soil in place.
On the island of Tarawa, a boy jumps into the water from the causeway that separates the lagoon and the ocean.