What can you do about a vanishing nation?

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What can you do about a vanishing nation?

Anote Tong is President of a small nation – a group of 33 atoll islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, half-way between Australia and Hawaii. Tong is faced with a dilemma the likes of which most government leaders couldn't image. Scientists predict that within 30 to 50 years the nation he governs will have disappeared, covered over by rising seas resulting from global climate change.

"For some time I did not sleep because I didn't have a solution to a problem that there wasn't a solution to," says Tong. "What happens to us in the future? Do we disappear as a culture? So these are the issues that keep me awake."

A new television documentary explores some of the issues that keep Tong awake and put his nation's 108,000 residents at risk. Airing September 1 at 20:30 (GMT) as part of tve's new ‘Life on the Edge' series on BBC World News, "The President's Dilemma" takes a hard look at the impact that climate change is having on poor, low-lying island nations like Kiribati and what can be done to help ease the burden for those who are living on the front lines.

"Already we have whole villages being washed out," Tong says in the documentary. "There's no running away from the reality that the seas are rising. There is no running away from that reality."

One recent study from the University of Colorado shows that even if carbon dioxide emissions are stabilized, sea levels will continue to rise as much as two metres by the end of this century. For the people of Kiribati, who live on narrow strips of land about the width of a city block just two metres above sea level, it's a trend that spells disaster. Already, sea level rises in Kiribati have inundated islands. Tebua and Bikeman islands off the coast of Tarawa, the country's capital, have vanished. At the same time, saltwater intrusion into aquifers is getting worse. Indeed, scientists predict salination will make the islands uninhabitable long before rising water overtakes settlements. As temperatures rise, extreme drought and storms have also become all too frequent, and people are struggling to grow the staple crops, like coconut, breadfruit and taro, that have sustained life for generations.

Although Tong's plan is to eventually get his people off the islands, he needs to build the country's economy in the meantime if he is to prevent further suffering as conditions get worse. Convincing development organizations to invest in a country that won't be around in 50 years has been a challenge but some, like IFAD, have been answering the call. The documentary film looks at the work that IFAD has been doing on one of the country's most remote southern islands, Arorae. Ron Hartman, IFAD's Country Programme Manager, says there is a lot that can be done to help people mitigate the impact of climate change and increase agricultural production. 

"Agricultural research could contribute to improving soil fertility," explains Hartman. "Agricultural research could also contribute to developing crop varieties that they can grow in high temperatures or salty water. But the urgency is now."

The Centre of Excellence for Atoll Agriculture Research and Development, with support from IFAD, will be looking at these very issues, helping local farmers on remote atolls improve their productivity and adapt to climate change. All of which, according to Tong, helps buy islanders more time.