The rising sea, the changing tides in Kiribati

In Kiribati, many homes are located near the sea or lagoon making them vulnerable to disasters. Photo: Sheryl Ho/UNDP

Boobu Tioram has dismantled and moved his house three times in the past nine years. It was either this, or watch his home get washed away by the Pacific Ocean. The two room home is made from a mismatched collection of pieces of corrugated iron and old wooden boards nailed together. Some walls have empty sacks pinned to them on the outside to cover the holes.

Every night as Boobu prepares to sleep, he listens to the waves crash into the sea wall he built to protect his house and wonders how soon he will have to move again.


  • Close to half of Kiribati’s population, an estimated 110,000, lives on South Tarawa.
  • The land area of South Tarawa is 15.76 square kilometers.
  • Food imports in Kiribati is 36% of the total food expenditure.
  • South Tarawa food import dependency is around 61%.

Fifty-year-old Boobu, a retired carpentry and joinery teacher, lives with his wife and two teenage sons in Temaiku, minutes way from the international airport in South Tarawa, Kiribati.

Rising sea levels that claim land on which houses are build and invade fresh water wells and plantations pose a threat to the very existence of many people living on low lying atolls in countries like Kiribati and Tuvalu. The highest point in Kiribati is only two meters above the sea level.

If the sea keeps moving in, where will people relocate to? That is the main question the minds of Boobu and his family, as well as others who are seeing their backyards eroded away daily. Close to half of Kiribati’s population, currently estimated at 110,000, lives on South Tarawa, leaving very little space available to relocate to.

“I have had to move my house three times since 2000 and I will have to move again when the sea claims this land. But apart from moving the house inland and building seas walls to protect it, what else can I do? This is my ancestral lands and I have nowhere else to go,” says Boobu.

The sea has already claimed a public road in Temaiku. Yet, people from the outer islands keep flocking to this area to stay.

Tiiroi, a mother of two is a new to the settlement. She moved to Temaiku, where her family’s ancestral land is, at the beginning of this year. The biggest difference she finds from the time she grew up a little girl is Tarawa is the scarcity of water.

“There are wells in this settlement that only have salty water. Neighbours who live a little bit away from the sea allow us to get drinking water from their well,” the 27 year-old said, speaking through an interpreter, adding that she has also been troubled to see trees dying.

“Headless” coconut palms are a sad sight to see in parts of Kiribati. Denuded of their splendid fronds, these dying coconut palms look like sticks stuck in the earth. This has been brought about by the tides coming in daily and partly submerging the palms Unable to keep up with this changing climate, the coconut palms are dying a slow death.

The President of Kiribati, Anote Tong is well aware of the challenges posed by beach erosion, sea level rise and contamination of fresh water sources to his country.

“A lot of people are asking the government to do something. What we are saying that we cannot do all of this because we do not have the resources. What government will do is provide protection for the public infrastructure but for private property, I am afraid we really do not have the resources to be able to do that.”

He has told Kiribati’s stories at the United Nations and on the world stage at different meetings. President Tong expects the Copenhagen Climate talks, currently underway, to have specific provisions for dealing with the “victims of climate change”.

“We never wish to be refugees. And we would be refugees if we do not do anything now,” said President Tong. He is encouraging the I Kiribati to get good education so that if they want to migrate to leave Kiribati for other countries, they can “migrate with dignity”.

Climate change has made the people of Kiribati very vulnerable. Adding to this vulnerability is the impact of the global economic crisis on Kiribati. The Asian Development Bank noted in December 2008 that Kiribati was among the most vulnerable Pacific Island countries. This is due to country specific factors like a weak export outlook, high inflation rates as well as fragile fiscal and current account positions. Remittance from the I Kiribati working on foreign fishing vessels is one of Kiribati’s main sources of income earners. However, fallen due to the decrease in value of the US dollar, this income has decreased significantly.

Kiribati is also highly dependent on food imports. Food imports make up 36 percent of total food expenditure in Kiribati, the report “Protecting Pacific Island Children and Women During Economic and Food Crises,” states, and it clarifies that in South Tarawa food import dependency is around 61 percent. This further adds to the vulnerability of the I Kiribati.

The report, does point out that the tide can change for the vulnerable in Kiribati as well as other countries of the region. It recommends that social protection measures be put in place to protect the most vulnerable, and build resilience in the region to face other changing economic tides.

Pacific leaders will meet and discuss various aspects of the global economic and financial crisis in their countries in a regional meeting in Vanuatu next year. The Pacific conference on the Human Face of the Global Economic Crisis will be held in Port Vila from February 10 – 12 and will be attended by Pacific governments, NGOs/CSOs, parliamentarians, women and youth groups and development partners.

Climate change and green growth will feature at this conference. It is not just Kiribati, but the Pacific region as a whole that faces the risk of further erosion of its people’s livelihoods brought about by climate change. The climate change and green growth session of the conference, which will be held on the second day, will discuss strategies of environmentally sustainable development in the Pacific.

Meanwhile, Boobu and his family carry on with their daily lives, keeping a worried eye on the sea and wondering when the tide will turn against them.

Human Interest Story on the Pacific Conference on the Human Face of the Global Economic Crisis 

UNDP Around the world

You are at UNDP Pacific Office 
Go to UNDP Global