For the 70 or so kids at a small primary school on Abaiang, one of Kiribati’s atolls, Thursday is a special day.
They come to school wearing black, to recognise the victims of domestic violence, which is a serious problem in Kiribati. When they discover foreigners have arrived, the children go home, put on their uniforms, and march in a parade, waving a large banner thanking New Zealand and UNICEF for the money which funds WASH, a programme encouraging hygiene to prevent sickness.
It’s a glimpse of village life in rural Kiribati, one deeply affected by the impacts of rising seas which have crept into everyday life.
The children are taught about climate change, sitting on the floor of their thatched classrooms: the way it is fuelled by industrial nations far, far away, where they live vastly different lives.
When a high tide washes over the island, the villagers rush to rescue taro from their swamps.
“The leaves start going yellow, starting to die out,” a village elder says through a translator. “So people rush and get the roots out before it’s too late.”
“During the high tides, people can’t do much. Sometimes there’s nothing they can do, just stand there and watch.”
When the wave flooded the maternity ward on Tarawa, a similar chaos was underway on Abaiang.
A wave soared over the beach and hundreds of meters inland, stripping leaves from a forest and poisoning the taro pits with salt.
Teachers raced immediately to the school, which was in the water’s path.
“We rushed to take the books from the office, all the teachers, and place them in the maneaba [meeting house],” said Rinan Angiraoi, a teacher.
“We were so frightened and surprised.”
Freshwater wells, already in desperately short supply, were polluted. The remnants of the forest are still there, now a marsh dotted with the skeletons of trees.
A couple of years later, there’s a bizarre sight at the end of the marsh. The beginnings of a seawall, hundreds of metres from the sea, serves as a last gasp effort to protect the community’s taro pits from the waves that reach further and further inland, increasingly moreso as the sea continues to rise, seemingly in concert with the powerlessness of the villagers to stop it.
When a king tide washed away the forest behind the school, they built an impromptu wall with the village’s rubbish.
“This is our rubbish area, and we tried to make a landfill to stop it,” Rinan Angiraoi, the teacher, says.
“I think it has worked.”
The need to battle the effects of climate change has started to overwhelm the other issues afflicting the i-Kiribati
Not long ago, the villagers built their first toilet. Until then they had been defecating on the beach, not far from where they swim. The atoll is so narrow their freshwater wells had become hydrologically connected to their self-dug toilets, meaning they were infecting their own drinking water.
“They just put the toilet down, and the water they drink from the well is mixed up with waste,” said Tenamau Iotua, a local nurse.
“They do not keep their waste in a tank – that’s why it mixes with water.”
She sees around five people a day in the small village, primarily with waterborne illnesses that in most parts of the world would be easily prevented.
The clinic, like many buildings in Kiribati, had to be moved away from the coastline after it was damaged by waves. A local tells me there was an issue with funding: aid money to rebuild the clinic had been spent on building seawalls instead.
It’s a choice regularly faced by the i-Kiribati. The need to build seawalls to protect against the immediate threat of sea-level rise can come at the expense of the long-standing social issues that come with poverty and isolation.
Kiribati is one of the world’s poorest countries, designated by the UN as a “least developed nation” and by the World Bank as a “fragile” state. It features in many of the same categories as Afghanistan and Haiti.
Data from the World Bank ranks Kiribati seventh in the world for aid dependency, between South Sudan and Somalia.
Its infant mortality rate is higher than it is in Bangladesh, and on par with Ethiopia. Children die of diarrhoea, dysentery and malnutrition, and thousands have been killed by third-world diseases such as tuberculosis in the last decade. Many people live without electricity and running water.
When the water recedes at low tide, mountains of rubbish are exposed on the reef bed. The coral reef has been abused for decades, primarily due to raw sewage discharges and bouts of coral bleaching. Broken shards of seawall litter the beaches, abandoned as new ones are built further inland which inevitably fail over and over again, rebuilt in a never-ending task that echoes the Greek myth of Sisyphus, doomed to repeat over and over again.
Parts of South Tarawa have among the highest population density in the world, exceeding that of cities like New York and Hong Kong. It’s particularly incredible given very few buildings are multi-leveled. Parts of the atoll are only as wide as a rugby field, but the population is increasing at an extraordinary rate – according to moderate projections, 55 per cent of the atoll will be vulnerable to inundation or storm surges by 2050, a timeframe in which its population will increase by 72 per cent.
The i-Kiribati are crammed into places people wouldn’t traditionally live. It’s why some refuse to leave their damaged homes – there is nowhere else to go.
“If I left this part of the island, some people would want to destroy this place,” Koin Akoi says, about her house surrounded by a broken, flooded forest.
“I don’t want to lose this heritage”.