Small island nations are now feeling so threatened by the prospect of rising sea levels and super storms from climate change that they are making plans to flee to safer shores.
First, the government of the low-lying Maldives announced that they would be using their sovereign wealth fund to buy land in countries like Australia; now, the government of the tiny South Pacific country of Kiribati is looking to the larger island chain of Fiji for a potential new home for its more than 110,000 citizens. The reason that these countries are planning for such an extreme emigration comes down to one thing – the threat of rising sea levels projected by many climate change models. If the most severe of these models are valid, entire countries – including the Maldives, Niue, and Kiribati – should be very concerned indeed.
In the event that the dire predictions made by these climatologists come true, these tiny island nations would simply disappear beneath rising waters, leaving tens of thousands of people stateless and desperate, refugees from an environment changing disastrously, and for reasons far out of their control. In Kiribati’s case, it is seeking to negotiate with Fiji, located a not-too-distant 2,100 km away, to purchase land and arrange for some form of transitional citizenship. Their government is in talks with Fijian leaders to purchase 20 square kilometres as an emergency haven.
So why did the Kiribati government choose Fiji? Fiji not only has a larger landmass than Kiribati – approximately 19,400 square kilometres, as opposed to Kiribati’s tiny 811 square kilometres – but its general elevation is significantly higher. Fiji’s main islands have rugged, mountainous interiors that peak at well over 1,300 metres, making many parts of the country safe from even worst-case scenarios for sea level increases. With a population density of only 46.4 people per square kilometre, which places the country down the list at 148th most dense in the world, there also seems to be room to spare.
However, Kiribati’s president, Anote Tong, has said publicly on Tongan television that he understands that the mass move to Fiji, should it become necessary, is not without significant challenges – including reservations on the part of the Fijian government. One way to ease the transition, he suggested, was ensuring that the people of Kiribati will be welcomed as productive citizens of Fiji, as opposed to being seen as refugee outsiders. His plan is to increase the level of education of his people, and helping them become skilled tradespeople to make them more employable.
“They need to find employment,” Tong said. “Not as refugees but as immigrant people with skills to offer, people who have a place in the community, people who will not be seen as second-class citizens.” He emphasized that in his view, the situation could be life-or-death for his people. “This is the last resort, there’s no way out of this one,” he said. “Our people will have to move as the tides have reached our homes and villages.”
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