By NIDHA KHAN and MAY LIN TYE.

 

It’s easy to be captivated by our world, drawn in by the beauty of lush tropical forests, vibrant sea life and sandy white island beaches. These remarkable features have existed for thousands of years, entrenched in histories which include the Aztec civilization and the world’s first seafarers who travelled to, and later inhabited, the Pacific islands.

Even today, the environment is deeply rooted in the routines, beliefs and traditions of non-Western cultures – bringing residents’ physical, mental, and spiritual balance.

However, this could all be disrupted or even lost to “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century” : climate change.

‘Climate Change’, according to the United Nations, is when the Earth’s weather conditions change directly or indirectly as a result of human activities.

For example: farming, deforestation, driving cars, and burning coal all emit greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. These gasses essentially trap the sun’s heat in our atmosphere, causing the Earth to become warmer and sea levels to rise.

Developed countries, in particular the United States, have contributed the most to climate change, yet low-lying developing islands, such as Kiribati, carry the majority of its heavy burden.

Kiribati, which is a part of the Pacific Islands, is made up entirely of atolls – ring-shaped coral reefs which are only a few metres above sea level. Being so low makes it extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

With rising sea levels of around 4mm per year and increasing sea temperatures causing coral bleaching and death, the projected sea level rise for Kiribati by 2030 ranges from 5-14cm, That means that it could soon be uninhabitable.

On top of these factors, Kiribati also faces extreme weather events imposed by climate change – intense cyclones and storms. These all affect the health and wellbeing of Kiribati’s residents.

Even though Kiribati is not yet physically submerged, the community is still struggling to cope with the effects of climate change.

These environmental factors can result in salt water entering fresh water sources making it undrinkable. It can also mean diminishing food sources due to the destruction of habitats of fish and of crops such as coconuts and taro. And then there’s overcrowding, from too many people and not enough land – increasing the spread of infectious diseases.

For those living in Kiribati, climate change is now a constant cause of fear and insecurity across all aspects of daily life.

Last year, a man named Ioane Teitiota came from Kiribati to New Zealand, with a plea to stay based on the threats to Kiribati’s existence due to climate change. He would have been the world’s first climate change refugee, but was then deported on the basis that he did not quality as a refugee due to the lack of “serious harm” he would face in Kiribati.

This says a lot about how climate change is perceived. A search of ‘climate change’ on Google images will yield pictures of a melting earth, a burning earth, polar bears balancing on ice caps, and this is often what we think of. It is not always as obvious how we, humans are affected, but climate change is a very real threat to health, wellbeing, humanity and life.

As Teitiota explains, “I’m the same as people who are fleeing war. Those who are afraid of dying, it’s the same as me.”

Kiribati is a victim of the developed world’s activities. It is a clear example of some of the ways that climate change impacts health and wellbeing physically, mentally and spiritually.

Even if the Kiribati community is granted refuge status, the loss of their homeland may continue to haunt them as a long-lasting effect of climate change. Community life in Kiribati has been heavily intertwined with the environment for thousands of years through traditions, myths, ceremonies and the burying of their ancestors on the islands. For them,  “the word for the land and the people is the same. If your land disappears, who are you?”.

If Kiribati becomes submerged, the consequent loss of this entire culture could create devastating impacts. For example, due to the disharmony created between the people and their environment, there could be an increase in mental health problems

One girl in Kiribati, Veronica, eloquently portrays her feelings towards the potential loss of her culture through her poem Dancing as I go:

 

Dancing as I go

With my feet buried in the sand,

I breathe in the rhythm of the wind and the waves

And wonder: how long?

As I perform the dance of my people to those who visit

I ask myself: will this be my last?

The last of my culture,

The last to pass on the traditions and ways of life

The last to drink what is left of the remaining Kiribati water

And the last to benefit from the bearings of the coconut tree.

Will those who I dance for return for me?

Save me?

Must I disappear with the land I love,

The land that is my home

Dancing as I go?

 

Climate change has endless flow-on effects, and Kiribati is suffering.

In fact, President Anote Tong of Kiribati has already stated that it is “too late” to save Kiribati. But we can still play our part to potentially reduce the impact and devastation of climate change on Kiribati, and on ourselves. Here are a few examples:

  • Try raising awareness of Kiribati at your school, and make sure you and your school reduce, reuse and recycle.
  • Unplug appliances you aren’t using – they may still use power even when switched off.
  • Try walking, biking or using more public transport.
  • Donate or volunteer to support the Red Cross which runs Pacific aid and disaster response programmes.

 

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