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.

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.

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