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Sinking Kiribati raises sovereignty questions



As the last minutes of the year 1999 ticked over, the world counted down to the beginning of a new millennium. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on the tiny sovereign nation of Kiribati, the clock struck midnight first, leaving the 20th century behind. It is now likely to become the first country to be wiped before the dawn of the next century.

Kirtibati, Tararwa island (JohnHodjkinson/Getty)But this tiny nation of 120,000 people isn't just at risk of physically disappearing because of rising sea levels. It's also at risk of disappearing politically and culturally. Kiribati's shakey future raises the unprecedented question of what could happen to its sovereignty if — or when — it physically disappears. Can a nation still exist without an actual country?

It's far from unprecedented for national borders to change. Just last century, Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic ceased to exist — but their lands, carved out to other, new nations, still very much exist. The prospect of an entire country actually disappearing is a challenge the world has yet to deal with.

The 33 islands that make up Kiribati are located some 3000km south of Hawaii, making it one of the most isolated countries in the world. Scientists have essentially concluded that a sea level rise of three to six feet by 2100 will swallow its low-lying atolls. No reduction or even elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from today will prevent this from happening, scientists have concluded.

Kiribati's government has been planning for the worse-case scenario for several years, purchasing 7.7 square miles of land in Fiji — located around 2000km south-west — for its inhabitants for US$6.1 million. At the time, then-President Anote Tong said he hoped his people would never have to use the land, but 'if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it'.

If the Kiribati people eventually move to Fiji, do they remain Kiribati? Or do they become new Fijians? Can an unofficial version of Kiribati exist within Fiji, or will that cause problems with the Fijian government?

Under the Montevideo Convention, a state can only exist if it meets four specific criteria: it must have a defined territory, a permanent population, and a government, which is also able to form relationships with other states. If Kiribati goes under water, it will lose at least one of these criteria, and possibly all four, unless changes are made to the convention, or unless Fiji relinquishes its sovereignty to the land that the Kiribati government purchased six years ago.


"Large and dominating countries such as Australia already potentially view this evolving disaster as an economic opportunity."


The issue becomes even more complicated when you factor in the future status of its rights to surrounding fisheries and minerals, and whether those waters could be re-labelled as international waters.

But a lack of political will on how sovereignty is defined has left Kiribati in a constant state of uncertainty. There have been talks and discussions about the political and legal status of Kiribati and yet as the sea levels inch closer to drown the islands, no agreement has been reached, leaving Kiribati a vulnerable player in any future negotiations with other nations. Large and dominating countries such as Australia already potentially view this evolving disaster as an economic opportunity.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd was ridiculed when he suggested that South Pacific countries at risk of being swept under rising sea levels exchange their exclusive economic zone for their residents being granted Australian citizenship. Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga rubbished the idea, labelling it 'imperial thinking' and a new form of colonialism.

Kiribati is vulnerable, not just because it's a developing nation, but because its uncertain future gives other nations a stronger chip to play in any diplomatic and trade talks. While many may scoff at Rudd's idea, Kiribati and other sinking island nations may find their bargaining power lessen as the years pass and water levels go up.

Kiribati is just one of several nations to face the ultimate consequences — Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and the Maldives face a similar fate. It's not a destiny, though, but the result of the world powers, led by the United States, failing to put into action policies that could have made a noticeable difference to current greenhouse gas emissions, which is the undisputed cause of rising sea levels.

Sovereignty is the right to absolute independence, self-governance and determination, but this is dependent on having land in order to exercise this right. If Kiribati is forced to relocate to Fiji, its ability to exercise any state-like power and rights will be dependent on the Fijian government, which again, makes it politically vulnerable.

In theory, Kiribati could follow in the footsteps of the UAE, which has constructed artificial islands as replacements for their natural atoll islands. But with a GDP of just US$196 million (2017), such an enormous project would require significant international funding and support, something that is lacking.

Another option — which would again require international cooperation and funding — is to construct some sort of small, permanent, island-like structure, where only a few Kiribati citizens would live, so as to maintain international recognition of its sovereignty. The practical problems this would cause the small group of inhabitants are not particularly difficult to recognise: lack of access to medical care, education facilities and basic infrastructure support. Where would their food come from, and how much would it cost to import? And that's just for starters.

Kiribati is more than its legal and political identity; its rich culture — language, food, customs, clothes and rituals — are also at risk. It has been failed by bigger and richer nations whose greenhouse gas emissions will see its lands literally disapear into the sea. It has been failed again by those same countries and international groups that have failed to address its impending loss of its own existence.



Alana SchetzerAlana Schetzer is a Melboune-based journalist and academic.

Main image: Kirtibati, Tararwa island (JohnHodjkinson/Getty)

Topic tags: Alana Schetzer, Kiribati, climate change, Covering Climate Now



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Existing comments

Talk about anxiety! I am reminded of Sammy Davis Jr's "I gotta be me" and these lines from the song: "I'll go it alone, that's how it must be/I can't be right for somebody else/If I'm not right for me.." Unfortunately for Kiribati the rest of the world is singing that tune. I have hopes though for a resilient people whose sovereignty is at stake.

Pam | 19 September 2019  

Sorry for sounding like a broken record, but the low lying Pacific islands are *not* sinking. Most of them are either stable, or even growing in size. Look up the research conducted by Dr Paul Kench of Auckland U. and others documenting this. For the record, Dr Kench believes global warming is real and a threat to humans generally.

HH | 20 September 2019  

There is ample research showing that Kiribati and other pacific islands are not sinking. And why say, “Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and the Maldives face a similar fate.” On Guadalcanal, the largest of the Solomon’s 900 islands, the mountains rise to 7,661 feet. On Espirito Santo, the largest of Vanuatu’s 82 islands, the mountains rise to 6,165 feet.

Ross Howard | 20 September 2019  

Dr Paul Kench of Auckland University may beg to differ with you Alana. He says Kiribati is growing in size and is significantly larger than 60 years ago. He is not a climate change sceptic. The Japanese carried out road assistance works in 2012 and some of the causeways were not engineered sufficiently to cope with king tide flows. But the islands are not sinking. Kiribati could study the Dutch method of building poldars. They could build a large stone seawall right around their islands and then backfill with stone. Surely Australia and the World bank would get behind that project. Of course given the huge pay rise our politicians have just given themselves there may not be any money left to aid Kiribati unless of course they go ahead with their threat to ditch Newstart and use those funds. The other problem is that the Morrison cabinet are all climate change sceptics.

francis Armstrong | 21 September 2019  

I think there are a number of corrections to be made to both author and respondents in this story. 1. Sea levels are rising, that is a fact supported by tidal records and satellite data. 2. Some low lying coral atolls are sinking as the volcanic processes that formed them are exhausted and the structure subsides under gravity and weight. 3. The "high islands", mostly active or recently active volcanic structures have little flat land, so sea level rise will force people up to the steeper interiors where agriculture is difficult, if not impossible. When making such assertions , it is a good idea to use scientific facts to back your statements. No doubt we will see climate change refugees on our door step quite soon. What will we do with them?

Gavin A O'Brien | 21 September 2019  

Interesting that the sea level at Fort Denison has remained the same since it was built between 1840 and 1862. Tides have been measured here since 1857. There is no sea rise.

Jane | 22 September 2019  

Gavin. 1. Charles Darwin correctly showed how coral atolls will rise with any sea level rise. It's happening, as Dr Kench's research shows. The urgent problem with atoll nations is overpopulation and thus exploitation of the non-saline "bubble" in their groundwater. Nothing to do with global warming. 2. The undeniable fact that some atolls are sinking because of the cessation of volcanic processes is neither here nor there in the debate about global warming and its consequences. 3. Most volcanic island communities have never had much low-lying land, and their economies have depended on the produce of their mountainous regions, plus fishing. So however much the sea level may rise in the near future, they’re not going to be much affected on a subsistence level by the mooted sea level rises.

HH | 23 September 2019  

The low-lying Pacific Islands face a future that includes a number of threats from climate change besides rising sea levels: stronger and more destructive cyclones, increasing land and water temperatures, longer droughts, increasing acidity of the ocean, slow destruction of coral reefs, reduction in size of fresh water lenses, loss of arable land and reduction of fish stocks. Kench himself recognises in his study that "habitability rests on additional set of factors". Increasing incidents of oceanic over-wash causing flooding of the islands, salination of soil and of water lenses that occurs with high tides and with severe weather events such as storms are threatening the habitability of these low-lying islands. And yes, population density is also contributing to the difficulties they face. According to SPREP (the South Pacific Regional Environment Program) by keeping temperature rise below 1.5 degrees celsius " there will be a future for at least some of the coral reefs and, although atoll communities will suffer there will be hope that the ocean will stabilise."

Jill Finnane | 14 October 2019  

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