Part III - The Pacific Islands

The Rising Tide

Global warming is creating havoc throughout the world.

Our oceans are warming and expanding causing an increase in hurricanes, tsunamis, tornados, flooding, and soil erosion.

This project, The Rising Tide: Sinking Earth, focuses on locations throughout the world that are experiencing the effects of coastal soil erosion due to climate change.


The Marshall Islands and Kiribati

The Marshall Islands and Kiribati

Climate change is the largest environmental threat to the people of the Pacific Islands. For the next installment of The Rising Tide, I chose to focus on the atolls of the Marshall Islands and Kiribati, which are in imminent danger of disappearing due to rising sea levels.

Because both countries are atoll nations, very little land is available for habitation. Erosion and increased frequency of extensive flooding are recurring events and, as a result, there is an increase in soil salinity of the groundwater.

Most agricultural crops cannot grow under these conditions. The majority of food in the supermarkets are canned and imported with long shelf lives. Due to the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, diabetes and other health problems are increasingly prevalent. Rainwater has been the only source of freshwater; therefore, drought is a major threat to the lives of the inhabitants.

ATOLL

An atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef formed by hard (Hermatypic) coral that encircles a lagoon partially or completely.

The outer part of the reef facing the ocean remains a healthy marine ecosystem, while the inner part facing the lagoon begins to decay; the result of less favorable conditions for the coral. As the limestone decays, it changes the color of the lagoon from deep ocean-blue to bright teal. In time, the ocean waves break the limestone reef apart, which is then deposited as sand to form the atoll.

Atolls are only formed in tropical waters with elevations less than five meters.

Majuro Atoll

Majuro Atoll

As a result of global warming and climate change, the narrow rings that form the atolls are constantly eroding due to king tides, causing the inhabitants to be faced with continual flooding. Many have been displaced; others have rebuilt raised homes.
Stone and cement sea walls are constructed to protect their homes from erosion. In many areas the cost of cement and stone is prohibitive. In this case, sea walls are made from sand bags or tires.
The governments of both the Marshall Islands and Kiribati have been very vocal in encouraging the world to curb carbon emissions, which would help to save their countries.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and Kiribati submitted their new climate action plans to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in July 2015, five months ahead of the Paris Agreement.

 

January 24-27, 2019

THE REPUBLIC OF THE MARSHALL ISLANDS

The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) attained independence from the United States in 1986 under a Compact of Free Association, which provides aid and defense of the islands in exchange for continued U.S. military use of the missile testing range at Kwajalein Atoll.

In 2008, the government declared a state of emergency after extreme waves and high tides caused massive flooding in the capital Majuro. In 2013 and 2014, the tides continued to devastate Majuro while the northern Marshall Islands experienced drought.

In 2013, Minister Tony deBrum proposed the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership and became a climate leader for the world. This declaration demanded a new commitment from the international community to stave off further climate disasters that would batter similarly vulnerable countries.

BIKINI ATOLL

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear weapons on Bikini and Kwajalein Atolls. The fallout extended throughout the Marshall Islands. The most famous test, called “Castle Bravo”, was dropped on Bikini Atoll in 1954 and was 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The purpose of this testing was to determine the effects of radiation on plant and animal life and how our naval vessels could tolerate radiation if the US were involved in a nuclear war. In 1956, the United States Atomic Energy Commission regarded the Marshall Islands as "by far the most contaminated place in the world." All residents of Bikini and Kwajalein Atolls were evacuated.

INTERVIEW WITH BIKINI ATOLL REFUGEE, ALSON KELEN

Alson Kelen

Alson Kelen

During our journey to the Marshall Islands, one of our first interviews was with Alson Kelen, a Bikini Atoll refugee. 

Alson is the director of WAM (Waam Aelon in Majel), a canoe building facility in Majuro. Canoe transportation is an efficient, low-cost and eco-friendly way of travel in the Marshall Islands.

Waam Aelon in Majel

Waam Aelon in Majel

Alson’s family was evacuated from Bikini Atoll during the United States nuclear testing.
The US government declared Bikini Atoll free of radioactivity in 1968 and built homes for the returning residents. Alson’s family moved back to Bikini in 1974 when he was five years old. However, after four years of exposure to radiation, the US government deemed the area unsafe, and again the residents were evacuated. Both of Alson’s parents died from cancer.

In 2012 the United Nations indicated that the contamination was near irreversible, and compensation claims continue as a result of this nuclear testing.
Alson believes that the people of the Marshall Islands have suffered for many years due to no fault of their own.
First they were homeless as a result of the US nuclear testing. Now they are almost country-less because of increased carbon emissions and rising tides caused by the largest countries in the world.

Cinematography: Bill Megalos

 

INTERVIEW WITH JOHN SILK, MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Minister John Silk lives on Ebon Atoll. As a child growing up on Ebon, he remembers fruits and vegetables flourishing.
He spoke of his young grandson’s future and the future of the Marshallese and summarized: “When I was growing up, the issue of climate change was never part of the equation. The sea washing over the reef was music to us. We were connected to the ocean. Now, every time the waves pound on the reef, it scares me. It’s no longer music. It’s a threat.”

Minister Silk informed us that fighting climate change is the main priority of RMI. The country is committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050 and has already banned plastic bags, instituted a desalination plant, and installed solar-paneled streetlights.

Minister John Silk

Minister John Silk

Solar-paneled Streetlight - Majuro, RMI

Solar-paneled Streetlight - Majuro, RMI

Silk explains that the Marshall Islands have the second-highest registration of ships in the world and is instituting a partnership with Germany with the goal of leading the world in the creation of solar-operated ships.

On November 22, 2018, the government hosted a 24-hour Virtual Summit where representatives from 40 countries participated, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. With the summit, they hoped to pressure world governments to act in working toward the goal of reducing carbon emissions by 2020.

The Virtual Summit itself served as another solution to reducing the carbon footprint by eliminating physical attendance.

 

JEBBA MADDISON

Jebba Maddison guided us throughout our stay in RMI.
She is part of the prominent Maddison family that has lived in the Marshall Islands for decades. We visited her home in Laura, in the northern part of Majuro, where she is testing the growth adaptability of different fruits and vegetables in salinized soil and of specific trees that will prevent coastal erosion along the shore.
Most of the conservation project happens on Bikirin Island where several college students are participating.

Jebba told us of an area nearby where there was once a local bar – this area is now ocean. She also spoke of the many coastal trees that need to be replaced because of erosion.

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LAURA, MAJURO ATOLL

Laura is one of the highest elevations on Majuro and considered the safest place to live. The homes seem substantial and in no danger of flooding. But even here, the residents have been affected by the king tides. We interviewed two of Laura’s residents.

Cay Toring

Cay Toring

CAY TORING, LAURA RESIDENT

Cay Toring is 69-years-old and lives with her husband, her older daughter, son, and one grandchild.

She explains that life is difficult combating the king tides. The tides keep coming, and she is in constant need of assistance.

LINDA LORENNIJ, LAURA RESIDENT

Linda Lorennij, her husband John and their six children have lived on their property for 10 years. Their original home had a fresh water catchment as well as banana and pandanus trees. Due to constant flooding all have disappeared.

Their new home is now precariously close to the shore. In order to protect it from another disaster, they have erected a wall using found materials.

Linda Lorennij

Linda Lorennij

Linda’s Sea Wall

Linda’s Sea Wall

Linda’s Home

Linda’s Home

Cinematography: Bill Megalos

 

CORAL

The beaches in the Marshall Islands are shaped from a combination of erosion and sand.
There is no limit to the endless amount of coral that continually washes up on the beach.

Increasing sea water temperature causes what is called coral bleaching. Coral bleaching thus causes the majority of coral to die, which then washes ashore.

THE LAGOONS, MAJURO and ARNO ATOLLS

The cool blue, green and purple water of the lagoon provided relief from the intense 95-degree heat that I faced every day. Underwater scenes were created as I swam and dove into a wonderland of green grass, rocks and shells.
I collected coral and fossilized rock while walking through streams of water advancing and retreating over the pink sand.

Where the lagoon meets the ocean.

Where the lagoon meets the ocean.

Coral and fossilized rock.

Coral and fossilized rock.

Underwater scenes.

Underwater scenes.

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JANUARY 27-31, 2019
KIRIBATI

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We left the Marshall Islands and headed to Kiribati.

Kiribati consists of 21 inhabited atolls with a population of 100,000; half of this population lives on Tarawa. Two small uninhabited Kiribati islets, Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea disappeared beneath the ocean in 1999.

It is one of the most vulnerable nations affected by climate change, and is expected to be the first country in the world to lose all of its land territory due to rising sea levels.

Kiribati’s exposure to climate change is also exacerbated by Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a climate switch phenomenon that results in changes from periods of La Niña to periods of El Niño. The downward pressure of El Nino affects the level of the sea against the upward pressure of La Niña.
Kiribati is a member of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), an intergovernmental organization of low-lying coastal and small island countries, which published the first draft of the Kyoto Protocol in 1994.

Most of Kiribati’s income is accumulated from outside funding. In 2003, the Kiribati Adaption Program (KAP) began as a $5.5 million US initiative supported by the Global Environment Facility (GAF), the World Bank, the UN Development Program and the Japanese Government. These initiatives include improving water supply, coastal management, and protection of public infrastructure. Kiribati also receives income from fishing licensing.
Due to the warming waters, coral bleaching has led to the death of 80% of its coral.

Nearly all of Kiribati’s essential food is imported because of the lack of fresh water. Most i-Kiribati sustain themselves on fish and rice.
Houses are typically made from material obtained from local coconut and pandanus trees.

ABERAAM TEBITAKI and MAYOR TAOABA KAIEA

Our guides, Aberaam Tebitake (acting Principal of Kiribati Teacher’s College) and Mayor Taoaba Kaiea (current Chairman of the Kiribati Local Government Association) were invaluable in introducing us to both the local people and to members of the government.
At the end of our gracious dinner with them the first evening, we discovered that “take out” in Kiribati refers to all food left over from a meal. My leftovers were packed with their leftovers so that nothing was left on the plates. If one entertains at home, three to four times the amount of food necessary for the meal is prepared so that guests can go home with leftovers.

The first afternoon Aberaam accompanied us to the Tabon Te Keekee Eco Lodge located in Abatao.
Silhouettes of raised platform huts pierced the spectacular sunset soaked with orange, red and purple. The water glistened as young boys played in the crystal blue water while boys and girls played beach volleyball and stickball on the shore. Children dove from the bridge 20 feet above the water.

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Witnessing the pleasure that these children derived from their beloved Kiribati, I can imagine how upset they would be if they were forced to leave their homeland and move to a different country.

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Eria Maerere

Eria Maerere

PASTOR ERIA MAERERE
TEBIKENIKOORA VILLAGE, EITA

Our first interview in Kiribati was with Pastor Eria Maerere, head of the Assembly of God in Tebikenikoora Village, comprised of 300 people from 60 extended families.

Eria Maerere lives with his extended family, which includes his wife, children, mother, and aunt in one complex of raised dwellings with a communal kitchen and a water catchment for their supply of fresh water.

Upon arrival to Tebikenikoora, a choir filled the air with local hymns in the communal gathering platform.
Eria has opened a preschool in the village. He believes that education is the only way to save the people of Kiribati, and through early education, the skills that they acquire will lead to job opportunities overseas.

He talked of his youth where there was no mention of sea level rise. Today, he sees it as an omnipresent concern.

Eria’s Family

Eria’s Family

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Above: Water source in Tebikenikoora

Above: Water source in Tebikenikoora

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The people of this village do not want to relocate. They are constantly fighting the tides and employing methods for survival.
To combat this continual deluge, most of the homes in the village are raised; tires and sand bags are used as sea walls, and vegetables are grown inside recycled raised tires.

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Two days after I left Kiribati, Eria sent me photos of the flooding in the village. He also mentioned that the sand bags were not working and that and he was hoping that his village would be able to secure cement or stone sea walls.

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Above photos courtesy Eria Maerere

Above photos courtesy Eria Maerere

Cinematography: Bill Megalos

 

ABAIANG ATOLL

Abaiang Atoll is located three hours by boat from Tarawa Atoll. Tebunginako Village, located on Abaiang, has become a symbol of the effects of global warming. News of the severe erosion that has occurred in Tebunginako has brought journalists throughout the world to document the devastation.

MAYOR IANETAMA KAITITAAKE

Ianetama Kaititaake has been Abaiang’s mayor for three years. He is responsible for sustaining an active community support system for inhabitants who are suffering from the effects of climate change.

The government assists with transportation, water supply, and relocation. By sharing the drastic effects of climate change in Kiribati with the world, Mayor Kaititaake hopes to receive financial support that will help Abaiang become more resilient to the perils that they face every day.

Mayor Kaititaake

Mayor Kaititaake

TEBUNGINAKO VILLAGE
ABAIANG ATOLL

The road to Tebunginako is very rough. After meeting with the Mayor to get approval to visit the village, we rented two motorbikes to ride to the village.

More than 100 families once lived in Tebunginako - now, all except three have been displaced because of flooding, severe coastal erosion and salt-water intrusion. Decayed trees line the shore. The sea inundates the terrain leaving little land for a platform dwelling.

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Dead palms have high water marks on their remains. All plant life has become extinct. Taro, a hardy vegetable that survives in salt water, has been planted 200 meters from the shore but is constantly being devastated by the king tides.

Erosion in Tebunginako began in the late 1970s. Fifteen years ago, the village was rebuilt 50 meters from the shore. Eventually, its structures were surrounded by a saltwater moat, replacing what was once a freshwater pond.

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Tingae

Tingae

TINGAE, RESIDENT OF TEBUNGINAKO VILLAGE

Tingae is 34-years-old with three children and has lived in this village for 20 years. She is a member of one of three families left living in this village. She describes the past when Tebunginako flourished with coconut, pandanus and breadfruit trees. Now, nothing grows in the brackish water.

Tingae walks every day to collect fresh water for her kitchen and for bathing. She is waiting to relocate until her extended family can provide property.
In order to support her family and their education, she sells local goods in Tarawa.

BERENETETA, RESIDENT OF TEBUNGINAKO VILLAGE

Bereneteta, 49, lives with her husband, four children and eight grandchildren. She has lived in this village since birth and remembers growing up with fertile land where fruits and vegetables were abundant.
Pointing to the 12-inch high water mark on her home left from the last flood two weeks prior, she describes how flooding can last for three days during high tide.

Bereneteta is also waiting for permission to relocate; until then, she lives with day-to-day uncertainty.

Bereneteta

Bereneteta

Cinematography: Bill Megalos

 
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During our trip to and from the village, I noticed several small complexes surrounding a solar panel, used to provide electricity to each hut.

Several huts had their own solar panels. The inhabitants of Abaiang are not adding to the carbon footprint, but are suffering the consequences of large carbon-polluting nations.

 

AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY

The beauty of the lagoons in Kiribati is beyond one’s imagination. As we flew into Kiribati days before, we saw striations of blue water layered on top of royal blue, which again rested on purple water.

These colors are created because of the atoll’s vulnerability to climate change. The constant erosion of the atoll on the lagoon side creates colors that vibrate to form patterns and shapes within the lagoon.

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TARAWA LAGOON

Several abandoned ships are strewn throughout the lagoon. The cost of dismantling these ships is prohibitive, so they remain as sculptures in the peaceful water.

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The lagoon is a playground for all. We watched children dive off an abandoned ship while one young woman decided to cool herself by using a tray as a floatation device.

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PRESIDENT TANETI MAAMAU

President Taneti Maamau was elected in a landslide victory on March 11, 2016.

His predecessor, Anote Tong, became the voice of Kiribati in 2008 when he requested that Australia and New Zealand accept Kiribati citizens as permanent refugees. Tong said that the country had reached "the point of no return" and added, "to plan for the day when you no longer have a country is indeed painful, but I think we have to do that.”

Under President Anote’s leadership, the government of Kiribati purchased the 5460-acre Natoavatu Estate on the second-largest island of Fiji, Vanua Levu, at a cost of 9.3 million Australian Dollars in order to relocate all of the citizens of Kiribati. Today, the i-Kiribati remain in their homeland and the Natoavatu Estate remains undeveloped.

President Taneti Maamau

President Taneti Maamau

In 2013, Kiribati applied for their residents to be “climate change refugees” under the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
The New Zealand High Court rejected the claim that environmental degradation resulting from climate change or other natural disasters could create a pathway into the Refugee Convention or “protected person jurisdiction.”

President Maamau has given hope to the inhabitants of Kiribati. He feels that with the help of the world, he will be able to build an infrastructure that will combat the extreme havoc that climate change is causing in his country. He hopes that by implementing strong environmental policies, the world will look to Kiribati as a world leader in combating climate change.

 
Alexander Teabo

Alexander Teabo

ALEXANDER TEABO, MINISTER OF ENVIRONMENT

Alexander Teabo was born on Butaritari Island. As a young boy, his island was full of fresh fruits and vegetables.
He played in the sea and ran into the waves. “The sea was our friend. No one thought that one day the sea level would rise. How could the sea do this to us?”

The rising tides, the warming of the ocean, and changing ocean patterns are drastically affecting life. Flooding and coastal erosion cause daily hazards along with long periods of drought.
Just a few days before my arrival, the two southern-most islands, Tamana and Arorae, were devastated by cyclones. NATO partner patrol boats provided supplies.

Alexander believes that Kiribati will survive and will not surrender to the threat of climate change.
The government’s sustainable development goals have been submitted to the UN for review.

In order to provide income for the nation, Alexander plans to build both tourism and the fishing industry.

The Kiribati government is actively planting mangrove farms to supply mangroves throughout the coast of Kiribati. Not only do mangroves prevent coastal erosion by holding the sand, but they also absorb carbon dioxide. The government is also building desalination plants that will aid in sourcing fresh water, and an area has been cleared that will serve as a water reserve.
The government has signed contracts with various countries pledging to join the worldwide effort to clean the environment. New Zealand is helping Kiribati recycle its solid wastes, and the two countries have also signed the Waigani Convention to rid the ocean of mercury and other chemicals.

Kiribati is a poor country and seeks the help of other countries in the fight against climate change.
More funds are needed for their coastal erosion plans, renewable energy, communication, and transportation needs. The Green Climate Fund has pledged 60 million US dollars to support the country’s need for fresh water and sanitation.

 

FEBRUARY 1, 2019
RETURN to the MARSHALL ISLANDS

Because of flight schedules, we had one last day in the Marshall Islands. We conducted several interviews.

MARIE MADDISON

Marie Maddison is Jebba’s older sister and the acting director of WUTMI (Women United Together Marshall Islands).

She is the second of eleven Maddison children and has served in many capacities within the government of the Marshall Islands, including education, foreign affairs, health and social services. She joined the disaster committee after experiencing years of flooding, drought, and typhoons.

Marie as well as most Marshallese is an expert with the procedure of crossing the road when the King Tide comes in: they wait for three waves and then dash across. Pretty crazy way to live!

Marie Maddison

Marie Maddison

David Paul

David Paul

DAVID PAUL, MINISTER OF ENVIRONMENT

David Paul is tasked with transforming the Marshall Islands’ shoreline by planting indigenous trees that can withstand the tides and help prevent erosion. He is also implementing many policies to reduce the Marshallese carbon footprint and institute a policy that will compensate citizens for collecting recyclable debris.

David feels it is an epic battle to fight climate change, yet he believes the Marshallese are leading the way by being the main architects of the Paris Agreement.

David states: “it is a matter of life or death for the Marshall Islands. If the global community does not address this issue seriously, the Marshall Islands will become uninhabitable. It might start with the Marshall Islands, but will not stop.”

As the revered and deceased ex-Minister Tony deBrum of the Marshall Islands said, “the ocean is made up of drops. Each one of us is responsible for a drop of ocean. You take care of that drop; and he takes care of his drop, and she takes care of her drop – we can take care of the world.”


The Marshall Islands and Kiribati, two small island nations in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, are both bringing attention to the dire effects that climate change will cause if the world does not address the reduction of Earth’s carbon footprint.

These countries and many others are fighting for survival. They have reduced their carbon use, but many countries have not.
The Paris Agreement was instrumental in addressing this issue; it is mandatory that every country abide by this agreement in order to actively reduce carbon emissions and combat ocean rise.

Nations that output the highest levels of fossil fuels need to find solutions and provide aid to countries that are in danger of disappearing before it is too late.

Arno Atoll, Marshall Islands, January 25, 2019

Arno Atoll, Marshall Islands, January 25, 2019

Arno Atoll, Marshall Islands, January 25, 2019

Arno Atoll, Marshall Islands, January 25, 2019

Jalto Island, Marshall Islands, January 26, 2019

Jalto Island, Marshall Islands, January 26, 2019

Abatao, Kiribati, January 27, 2019

Abatao, Kiribati, January 27, 2019