Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Endangered Pacific islet facing mass relocation

ABC Online, Posted 35 minutes ago 

Updated 28 minutes ago

World Environment Day is an opportunity for a diverse spread of countries, companies and communities to look at their environmental problems and try to find some solutions.

But for the tiny Pacific nation of Kiribati, the environmental outlook is so grim the President, Anote Tong, has issued an appeal for Australia and other countries for help.

He desperately needs assistance to provide a home for his people, amid predictions that global warming will render the low-lying islands uninhabitable in 50 years.

Kiribati is made up of three groups of coral atolls. The population stands at 90,000 on land which is barely two metres above sea level.

On a map it may look small, but Kiribati has some big problems. With rising sea levels and erosion, many communities have already relocated.

President Tong is watching on with sadness.

"Every second week when we get the high tides, there's always reports of erosion," he said.

"To plan for the day when you no longer have a country is indeed painful but I think we have to do that."

President Tong has just arrived in New Zealand for talks with Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Prime Minister Clark says there is already a small community from Kiribati in New Zealand.

"If the worst happens no doubt they would be bigger," she said.

He is appealing to her and other leaders to help relocate his people. He says water supplies are being contaminated by the rising sea and time is running out.

"There's a number of scenarios. We are programming for the worst possible case scenario - 50, 60 years. And so we have to think about that," he said.

Global challenge

The President says his people have no options left - they must leave.

"We have to find the next highest spot. At the moment there's only the coconut trees. But I think we have to [leave], in fact I've appealed to the international community that we need to address this challenge," he said.

"It's a challenge, I think not for any one single country but I think for the whole global community.

"Maybe we have a few decades to address this but we believe that we should begin to address the issue yesterday."

President Tong has called upon other countries to follow New Zealand's lead.

"New Zealand offers more opportunity but I think from our own perspective ... it is important that if our people were to relocate, they should do so as trained, skilled people rather than people coming here and adding to the problems, their own problems and to the national problems," he said.

President Tong says migration must start now, on World Environment Day, so the people of Kiribati can find a new home and a new future.

"We want to deny it, we don't want to believe this, and our people don't want to believe this. But it gives us a deep sense of frustration. What do we do?" he asked.

"If you want to lead the people you must always be in the position to provide options, and so this it the option that we are suggesting, in the belief that if it is going to happen we will have at least addressed part of the problem and it won't be such a severe one to address when the time finally comes."

-Adapted from a story originally aired on AM on Thursday, June 5.

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