The president of Kiribati, an island nation in the Pacific ocean, recently purchased eight square miles of land about 1,200 miles away on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second-largest island. Like other Pacific Island nations, including Tuvalu and the Maldives, Kiribati is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change — especially sea level rise. In certain areas around these islands sea level is rising by 1.2 centimeters a year, about four times more than the global average. Within decades significant chunks risk submersion.
Kiribati president Anote Tong is well aware of this, saying of the purchase, “we would hope not to put everyone on [this] one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it.”
With just over 100,000 people scattered across 33 low-lying coral atolls totaling about 313 square miles, the land purchase provides some guaranteed high ground to escape to if sea level rise renders the country mostly uninhabitable. The Church of England owned the land, which is mainly covered in forest, and sold it to Kiribati for $8.77 million. Barring imminent relocation, it will be used primarily for agriculture and aquatic farming to ensure Kiribati’s food security. With sea level rise contaminating groundwater and climate change causing devastating coral bleaching, the nation’s food supply is also in jeopardy.
In a statement, the government said the purchase marked “a new milestone” in its “development plans, which include exploring options of commercial, industrial and agricultural undertakings such as fish canning, beef/poultry farming, fruit and vegetable farming.”
Kiribati is the first country to actually purchase land in another country as a hedge against climate change.
“Among the small islands, Kiribati is the country that has done most to anticipate its population’s future needs,” François Gemenne, a specialist on migrations at Versailles-Saint Quentin University, France, told The Guardian. “The government has launched the ‘migration with dignity’ policy to allow people to apply for jobs on offer in neighboring countries such as New Zealand. The aim is to avoid one day having to cope with a humanitarian evacuation.”
Tong’s predecessor, Teburoro Tito, is not convinced of the value of the recent transaction, arguing that scientists are saying that reefs can grow faster than sea level rise. “How can we ask for foreign aid when we spend our own money on such foolish things?” he said.
Paul Kench, an atoll geo-morphologist at the University of Auckland, confirmed that Kiribati’s reef structure can grow at 10 to 15 millimeters a year, faster than expected sea level rise. This would provide additional sand under the water, though it is not certain that yearly growth in coral reefs translates to habitable land of the type currently used by residents.
Tito, the former president, thinks the purchase was more for publicity and to help raise awareness for the overall seriousness of climate change in the Pacific Island community.
Residents of another Fijian island, Vunidogolo, were recently forced to relocate due to rising sea levels that flooded farmlands. The recent IPCC Report found that sea levels could rise by as much as three feet by the end of the century due to climate change.