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Boys on a seawall on Tarawa atoll watch a squall approach. The warming atmosphere is predicted to bring heavier rainfall to Kiribati and other island nations in the central Pacific Ocean.

Rising Seas Threaten These Pacific Islands but Not Their Culture

Kiribati islanders draw on centuries of voyaging tradition and the power of cultural pride to confront the challenges coming their way.

This story appears in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.

It was the time called itingaaro, the dawn twilight, when the island was just waking up and the roosters were vying to out-crow each other and the angel terns were twittering their love talk in the breadfruit trees. People drifted sleepily into the lagoon to wash, splashing water on their faces, then tightening their sarongs and diving under.

The tide was full and taut like the skin of a pregnant woman. Beyond the lagoon the ocean stretched to the horizon. Marawa, karawa, tarawa—sea, sky, land. These are the ancient trinity of the people of Kiribati (kee-ree-bahss), the I-Kiribati. But the trinity is tilting out of balance. Mother Ocean isn’t the heart of providence the people have always known. She is beginning to show a different face, a menacing one of encroaching tides and battering waves.

I-Kiribati now live with the reality of marawa rising. This is the time of bibitakin kanoan boong—“change in weather over many days”—the Kiribati phrase for climate change. The people live with the fear and uncertainty of those words.

How can they not feel afraid when the world keeps telling them that low-lying island countries like theirs will soon be underwater? Their own leaders have said that Kiribati—33 coral islands in an expanse of the central Pacific larger than India—is “among the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.” They have predicted that Tarawa atoll, the nation’s capital, will become uninhabitable within a generation.

But many I-Kiribati refuse to think of their homeland as a “disappearing island nation,” its fate already out of their hands. They do not think of themselves as “sinking islanders,” rather as descendants of voyagers, inheritors of a proud tradition of endurance and survival.

They believe their paradise is far from lost.

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Aquaculture ponds fill a reclaimed area beside the airport on Tarawa, Kiribati’s capital and its most densely populated atoll. Much of Tarawa is less than eight feet above sea level and risks being inundated as the ocean rises.

Bit it is surely suffering. The sea is becoming an unwelcome intruder, eroding the shoreline and infiltrating soils, turning wells brackish and killing crops and trees. Atolls like Tarawa rely for their fertility on a lens of freshwater, replenished by rain, which floats on a saltwater aquifer. As the sea level rises—a few millimeters a year at the moment but likely to accelerate—so does the level of salt water underground, shrinking the freshwater sweet spot.

“Now we hate the sea,” Henry Kaake told me as we sat in his kiakia, an open-sided hut on stilts used for both sleeping and chatting with friends. “Yes, the sea is good for us to get our food, but it is going to steal our land one day.”

An early casualty of creeping salinity has been bwabwai, the prestige food of Kiribati culture, the food of feasts, a giant swamp taro that can take more than five years to mature. Some varieties reach from a person’s shoulder to the ground. Sensitive to saltwater intrusion in the pits in which it’s cultivated, bwabwai now cannot be grown in many areas and could eventually disappear from island cuisine.

Government and aid agencies are helping gardeners switch to other starchy crops. In a communal garden on one of Tarawa’s neighboring atolls, Abaiang, I watched Makurita Teakin chop leaves into mulch and spread it around seedlings of a shallow-rooting variety of taro that doesn’t need swamp conditions. Nearby, another woman watered her seedlings with fish fertilizer from a can punched with nail holes.

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Bride Teiti Kiroon and groom Iannang Komi are making their home on Tarawa, despite concerns about how climate change is affecting Kiribati. Many islanders think about moving to safer countries, but they also feel wedded to their homeland and its lifestyle.

The tide drained from the vast sand flats of Tarawa lagoon, exposing myriad miniature sand volcanoes built by ghost crabs. Adults and children, toting plastic bags and buckets, probed the sand with their fingers and scratched in the crevices of rocks with teaspoons for cockles—called koikoi—and sea snails. The harvesters walked far out to the water’s receding edge, bending over double, sifting and scraping for a few ounces of seafood.

If they found enough cockles, they might prepare them in coconut cream, cooking them inside a coconut shell over a smoky coconut-husk fire. Coconut palm—nii—is there anything this tree doesn’t provide? Baskets, brooms, timber, thatch, oil, fermented toddy, soap, a dark sweet syrup called kamwaimwai. Tree of heaven, some people call it. I-Kiribati have more than a dozen words for the stages of the fruit alone—from a young nut before the water forms to an old one with rancid flesh.

Holding fast to tradition matters for many I-Kiribati. Mwairin Timon was making coconut sennit when I met her, sitting on an old pandanus mat outside her shanty at the edge of the lagoon, rolling tufts of coconut fiber on a piece of driftwood with the palm of her hand. More than a year ago she had buried coconut husks in the lagoon, marking the place with a rock. A thousand tides had done their work, curing and softening the fibers. Now she twisted them into string the same way her grandmother would have, and her grandmother before her, all the way back to the first settlers of these atolls, who splashed ashore some 3,000 years ago.

Rain clouds darkened and moved across the lagoon, blotting out the islets of North Tarawa, the other side of wishbone-shaped Tarawa atoll. Soon they would bring relief to this side, South Tarawa, where half the nation’s people live on barely six square miles of land.

It is a mercy that rainfall is predicted to increase over the coming decades, although downpours are likely to be more extreme, causing flooding. As underground freshwater reserves are compromised by rising seas—and in Tarawa’s case, heavy population pressure—harvesting rainwater from roofs may offer an alternative. On Abaiang foreign aid has provided some communities with simple systems that catch, filter, treat, and store rainfall. As long as you have freshwater, you can cope with other changes—at least for a while. How long, no one knows.

The tide turned and slid shoreward like a sheet of green glass, pushing the harvesters ahead of it. Tides are an axis of Kiribati life. So are the movements of sun, moon, and stars and the directions of wind and swell. In times past, if you understood these axes, you could calculate when to plant crops, when to fish, when to set sail in hundred-foot outrigger canoes called baurua. Such was the algebra of the Pacific.

Fishermen knew the bait each fish preferred, whether to catch it in the day or night, and the best tactic for taking it: hook, noose, or net. But the certainties of that world are breaking down. Once reliable fishing places now yield empty lines and nets. The warming ocean is thought to be driving some fish to cooler waters.

Coral reefs are suffering as well—and worse is yet to come. As the sea grows warmer and more acidic throughout this century, reef growth is predicted to slow and even stop. Coral bleaching—when stressed corals expel the symbiotic algae that give them color and nutrients—used to happen every ten years or so. But it’s becoming more frequent and eventually could happen yearly, threatening coral survival and dimming the reefs’ living rainbow to a shadow.

Where reefs go, islands will follow. Atoll islands rely on deposits of sediment from corals and other marine organisms—often dumped onshore by storms—to keep their heads above water. They are like construction sites: If the materials run out, building will cease. A dead reef cannot sustain the islands it has built.

What kind of world is this, where the sea consumes its own creation?

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Families from Kiribati’s outer atolls are flocking to South Tarawa for jobs, education, and health care, swelling the population to more than 50,000. Newcomers are often forced to live in marginal areas prone to flooding by high tides.

To many I-Kiribati it seems deeply unfair that their country’s climate troubles are not of its own making. Since the 1980s Pacific leaders have scolded, cajoled, pleaded with, and tried to shame the major carbon-polluting countries over climate change. The islands are ants and the industrialized nations are elephants, declared Teburoro Tito, a former Kiribati president, speaking of the infinitesimal contribution his country has made to the planet’s carbon burden.

There is an aspect to the rich world’s disregard that is especially hard for I-Kiribati to stomach. They are particular about respecting boundaries. Traditionally, you never took coconuts from a tree that wasn’t yours. You wouldn’t even take dead breadfruit leaves to light a fire without asking. Reefs had boundaries too. People knew where they were entitled to harvest.

Those protocols are still observed today. When I joined fishermen traveling from Tarawa to Abaiang, on a day so calm the clouds had blue-green bellies from the reflection of the sea, the skipper stopped the outboard motor at a certain reef and one of the crew threw hand-rolled pandanus cigarettes into the sea as offerings and a mark of respect for the owners of the territory we were crossing.

When you travel to another island for the first time, before you do anything else, you announce yourself to the place by visiting a sacred site. You make a gift of cigarettes or a few coins, and the caretaker picks up damp sand and pats it on your cheeks and ties a tendril of green vine around your head. After performing this ritual on Abaiang, the caretaker of the shrine told me, “You now belong to this island.”

What do the wealthy countries know of respecting boundaries? I picture a cloud of greenhouse gases drifting toward Tarawa from over the horizon, like radioactivity from the nuclear weapons exploded in Kiribati’s Line Islands after the Second World War. It doesn’t seem so very different: nuclear fallout in the 20th century, climate fallout in the 21st.

The feeling of injustice is widespread on the atolls most at risk from rising seas: Kiribati, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Tokelau, and Tuvalu. A former Tuvaluan prime minister, Saufatu Sopoaga, went so far as to compare the impacts of climate change to “a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us.”

Even so, some I-Kiribati reject the rhetoric of victimhood and the implication that Pacific nations are powerless. “We are not victims,” Toka Rakobu, who works for a Tarawa tourism agency, told me. “We can do something. We are not going to be a defeated people.”

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Tarawa’s two slender chains of islets amount to a scant 12 square miles of land area. Half of Kiribati’s 106,000 citizens live on the southern islets, which are connected by causeways.

But can you blame politicians, including Kiribati’s president, Anote Tong, for playing the global underdog? Talk of drowning islands and climate refugees has made Kiribati known around the world. Photographers and journalists have made their way to Tarawa to report from “the front line of the climate-change crisis.”

Their visits tend to peak at the time of the king tides, the highest tides of the year, when the drama of waves overtopping seawalls is greatest. Early this year a king tide lifted a shipwreck off the reef at Betio, Tarawa’s westernmost islet, and flung it ashore, piercing a seawall. There it has stayed. The ship has an ironic name: Tekeraoi, “good luck.”

There is a darker irony too. The shipwreck came ashore on Red Beach, where a lower-than-expected tide stranded American landing craft during the Battle of Tarawa in 1943, leading to a bloodbath.

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Sandbags do little to hold back the ocean at Temwaiku, a vulnerable village on South Tarawa. In February, waves washed away this bulwark and rolled inland, leaving behind flooded homes, salty soil, and tainted wells.

Stories of the Pacific’s climate woes have brought a flow of sympathy and aid money to Kiribati and her island neighbors, but if you hear that message of environmental doom often enough, you might think you had no option but to leave. There is much talk now about migration. Should we stay? Shall we go? Will we be forced to relocate? If so, where? No country is flinging open its doors to climate refugees.

The questions are agonizing, not least because they bear on a sense of identity. In the Kiribati language the word for “land” and “people” is the same. If your land disappears, who are you?

Yet, conversely, Pacific people are renowned for their migrations—after all, their ancestors made the entire ocean their home. In Kiribati’s origin story Nareau, the Creator, was a spider, and I-Kiribati have been spinning webs ever since. Every family has relatives in New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, and farther overseas, each migration a silk strand in a net of kinship bonds.

There is sometimes an expectation that the young will leave Kiribati and the old will stay. But some of the young choose to live a simple life on ancestral land rather than pursue prosperity abroad. Mannie Rikiaua, a young mother who works in Kiribati’s environment ministry, told me she would rather work for her own people than serve another country, despite her father’s urging that she migrate to a “higher place.”

“Part of me wants to go,” she admitted. But then she added, as if she had made her mind up once again, “Kiribati is the best place for my sons, regardless of the threats.”

She was responding to tangiran abam, she said, the love and longing I-Kiribati feel for their homeland. Tangiran abam has kept Kiribati’s more distant atolls culturally vibrant, even as their populations shrink and Tarawa’s swells. It remains a strong impulse. I heard that love of place in the sound of people singing in the lagoon at night. I saw it in the vivacious dances of schoolchildren that mimic the movements of seabirds. I heard it in the words of Teburoro Tito, when he met me between parliamentary sessions and said that, at heart, he was an island boy: “I grew out of the soil and the sand and the coral of this place. I love these islands, and I don’t see any other home in the world.”

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Mangroves can’t stop the encroaching ocean, but the trunks and roots of mature trees reduce erosion and suppress storm surges. Seedlings have been planted near Tarawa’s airport to stabilize the shore of the lagoon.

To protect that home from the hungry ocean, some islanders have taken to planting mangroves, whose matrix of roots and trunks traps sediment and quells scouring waves. I joined some women who were picking ripe seedlings that dangled in bunches like string beans among the glossy green leaves of a mature mangrove stand. A few days later we planted them in a part of the lagoon that needs extra protection from king tides. It wasn’t much, but there’s little else islanders can do to hold on to their land except rebuild their seawalls when the waves smash them.

Mangroves might make a good national symbol, I thought: resilient trees resisting storms, binding the land. The current symbol, emblazoned on the Kiribati flag, is evocative too: eitei, the frigatebird, a bird of chiefs, a bird of the dance, a high flier that floats on the wind rather than fights against it. But frigatebirds must follow the schools of fish on which they feed. If the fish depart for good, will the frigatebird’s forked tail still be seen scissoring Kiribati skies?

One of the mangrove planters, Claire Anterea, who works in the Kiribati government’s climate adaptation program, said her people must acknowledge their role in climate change, small as it may be, and try to offset it. “We contribute less, but we still contribute,” she said. “We have been eating a lot of Western food. We like noodles, we like Ox & Palm [canned corned beef]. And that food is made in factories that produce gas. We are all contributing because we want to live the Western way.”

Anterea had just finished building a traditional house, powered by a solar panel. “I can’t talk about climate justice overseas if I don’t act right myself,” she said. Even small actions have a multiplying effect, she believes. “If we work together—all the countries in the Pacific—we can maintain our islands and stay here.”

On my last night in Tarawa I wanted to do something to show solidarity with my Kiribati neighbors. I am a Pacific islander too—although New Zealand’s mountainous islands face nothing like the existential threat that looms for atolls where much of the land is only a few feet above sea level. Yet the “blue blood of Oceania,” as Kiribati poet Teweiariki Teaero calls the Pacific, binds us as one family.

The electricity was off, not an uncommon problem, so two of my mangrove-planting friends—Vasiti Tebamare and Tinaai Teaua, who run a health spa in the village of Temwaiku—suggested we take our meal to the airport runway. It is something of a tradition, on sultry nights too stifling even for a fan to relieve, for families to spread their mats on the little-used runway and eat a picnic supper. It’s always cool there, with a breeze off the ocean.

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A wrecked fishing vessel serves as a diving platform for Tarawa youngsters, who grow up in, on, and always within sight and sound of the ocean. This and coming generations face tough climate challenges as warming, rising, acidifying seas threaten life on their native islands.

We took grilled fish, rice, and fried breadfruit chips to eat and moimoto—green coconuts—to drink. The airfield was twinkling with flashlights and bathed in the soft murmur of conversation. We found a quiet spot, ate, talked, then lay on our backs and stared at the blazing night sky—the “belly of the eel,” as I-Kiribati call the Milky Way.

I wished I could name the constellations as the early navigators did, knowing them as intimately as if they were family. They learned them by seeing the sky as the roof of a meetinghouse, divided into a grid by rafters and lines of thatch. The stars rose in one quadrant, sailed across the roof, and set in another.

Master navigators knew upwards of 150 stars. You could put them anywhere in the ocean, and they would know exactly where they were. I-Kiribati might live on small islands, but there is nothing small about their sense of their place in the world.

New Zealand writer and editor Kennedy Warne has visited three of the atoll nations in his Pacific backyard that are most at risk from rising sea levels: Tokelau, Tuvalu, and now Kiribati.