The effects of climate change in Kiribati: A tangible threat to adolescents
For adolescents in the Republic of Kiribati, climate change is not up for debate – it is real and it is happening now. Our young people feel its impact whenever high tides flood their houses; they taste its effects as their drinking water becomes salty. Rising sea levels, which have already brought pools of brackish water to the doorsteps of many homes, are consuming our tiny islets, contaminating our vegetable gardens and poisoning our freshwater wells.
Kiribati is a Pacific island country with a total land area of 811 square kilometres. We have 33 atolls and reef islands, which are home to over 97,000 people – nearly half of whom are children. Global warming will change the lives of our young people in more ways than we can imagine. In 30 to 40 years, their nation, their home may no longer be habitable – it may not even exist. It is time to face facts. We need to act swiftly and decisively to minimize the adverse impact that climate change is having and will continue to have on Kiribati.
Global warming destroys our ability to grow the variety of foods required to provide our children with a balanced and nutritious diet. Resources are diverted away from their education and health as expenses to maintain basic infrastructure increase due to the encroaching sea. Climate change is eating away their future and putting their physical and mental development at risk. Failure to react to climate change now will result in high cultural, social and financial costs. For low-lying countries, such as Kiribati, which are at the frontline of climate change, the threat it poses is real and immediate. The economic disruption could be catastrophic, even requiring the population to relocate to other countries.
While the Convention on the Rights of the Child – the only United Nations Convention to have been ratified by every independent Pacific island country – does not explicitly mention the right to be protected from natural disaster, climate change directly affects children’s right to life, survival and development. As the Convention states, every child has the right to a standard of living adequate for her or his physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. Our children’s right to preserve their identity, including their nationality, and their right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health are being threatened. Climate change also jeopardizes the sustainable development agenda established by the Millennium Development Goals.
When I speak with teenagers in Kiribati about global warming and its effects, it is clear that their knowledge of the issue varies significantly depending on where they live. For those who live in remote atolls, limited access to information may lead to confusion and anxiety. We cannot afford this. We need to ensure that every child and adolescent in Kiribati is provided with the means to partake in this vital debate. Investing in information communication technology across the country will enable us to teach, learn and share information on climate change and its related issues much more quickly. As the ones facing the brunt of this global challenge, our children and adolescents must be at the forefront of tackling the problem. Adolescents in particular are often quick to grasp problems and apply great energy and enthusiasm to finding solutions. They are our future and they need to be empowered to take action.
This year, we celebrated 31 years of independence. It is my fervent hope that our children, grandchildren and future generations will be able to celebrate many more years of independence in Kiribati. As a small island developing state (SIDS), we cannot afford the needed investments or solve the issue alone. This is a call to action for families, communities and governments of developed nations to partner with us as we work to give our children and adolescents a chance to have a future. Let us re-examine the impact on our shared environment of what we are all doing right now and determine how we can collectively tackle the challenges of climate change together with our children and adolescents. Let us begin today.
His Excellency Mr. Anote Tong, President of the Republic of Kiribati since July 2003, is serving his second term. He holds a Master of Science degree from the London School of Economics. His professional experience includes work at the University of the South Pacific and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, as well as senior civil service positions in the Government of the Republic of Kiribati before he went into politics in 1994. From 1994 to 1996, he was the Minister of Natural Resources Development.