“Governments don’t have conscience; only four-year election terms…..”

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Kiribati President Anote Tong interacting with The Hindu on the sidelines of the 13{+t}{+h}Delhi Sustainable Development Summit in New Delhi.— Photo: R. V. Moorthy
Kiribati President Anote Tong interacting with The Hindu on the sidelines of the 13{+t}{+h}Delhi Sustainable Development Summit in New Delhi.— Photo: R. V. Moorthy

The 33 atolls (coral islands) that make up Kiribati occupy a vast area in the Pacific. Kiribati is one of the low-lying island States where the highest land is no more than two metres above sea level, making it highly vulnerable to rising sea levels and global warming. Kiribati President Anote Tong has over the past several years frequently lent his voice to calls for action on climate change. In New Delhi to participate in the 13{+t}{+h}Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, he spoke to The Hindu’s Sowmiya Ashok on how inaction could mean his country ceases to exist altogether...

How do the people of Kiribati perceive the threat of rising sea levels given several years of peaceful co-existence with the sea?

The threat is very real. Everyday we see the sea pounding on the shores and during high tides the waves get higher. Once in a while, the water floods our homes and we start to get worried.

And then at such summits when you are told that sea levels are rising further we know then that we won’t be able to handle those extreme high tides. India too may experience such strong waves but the difference is you have a mountain behind you while we just have a coconut tree.

What are the most visible impacts of climate change in Kiribati? When were these changes noticed?

If I had to provide one example, it would be that of a village community that had to be relocated due to rising sea levels. This was 10 years ago. We tried to build protected sea walls, but it really did not do the job. Many communities are suffering because seawater contaminates freshwater ponds that are used to develop food crops. This is happening on a number of islands and in a number of places. Erosion has also been a problem and I believe it has been happening over time but not to the extent that it has been happening at the moment.

How does Kiribati fund the construction of sea walls and other kinds of reinforcements to make the nation ‘climate change proof’?

At the moment, we are building sea walls simply to protect public infrastructure. There is a lot more damage we are not dealing with because we do not have the resources to do so. We do get some assistance from our development partners in a small way. This is all to deal with the problem as it is now. It is quite a different issue on how to deal with the problem in the longer term to make our islands “climate change proof.”

We have carried out detailed analysis of most of the islands and if I can consider the damage that we are faced with at the moment, it is going to cost us millions of dollars.

Several options are being considered to secure the future of the people such as buying land in Fiji, relocating some part of the population to East Timor or man-made islands resembling giant oil rigs. Are you seriously considering some of these options?

Ideally, we would like to able to build the island to make it climate change proof, but given the current attitude of the international community I feel the resources required are most unlikely to be forthcoming. So what is going to happen is that the land mass is going to decline and the population is going to continue to increase and at some point in time we just won’t have enough land to live on. So we have to look at other options. I think this is only realistic no matter how undesirable.

But I also think it is a mistake to think that these options are mutually exclusive. We will build up some of the islands as it is important to maintain the nation of Kiribati. Our approach is to begin the process of preparation. We are not going to tell our people to relocate but we will give them the option and will build their skills so they don’t live as second-class citizens wherever they go.

Is there a misconception among countries that if you are economically strong and geographically secure you are free from the clutches of climate change? What has been Kiribati’s experience in dealing with Western countries?

I will invite you to refer to some of my very early statements when I spoke with a lot of anger and I think that was very much reflected in my statements. I also spoke with a sense of futility because we really do not have much to choose from.

As I said at the summit, no matter what happens in these negotiations, we will be affected very significantly. I keep trying to appeal to the conscience of people but unfortunately governments do not have a conscience, they only have four-year election terms. But I have met citizens of different countries who have been very compassionate.

The recurring theme in the summit has been that of a “lack of political will”, but recently United States President Barack Obama spoke about climate change in his inaugural address. Do you think this will have a drastic impact on what happens next?

There has been a very noticeable change in attitude among governments and individuals over the years. Previously, people would reject or simply try to oppose it but now they are beginning to understand the risk. Mr. Obama’s statement is very significant for climate change and he has always been sympathetic to the challenges of climate change. I do hope this will change things but I hope it does not take too long since we are running out of time.

What kind of relationship do you see with India on this issue?

India is doing what we would like to do in the field of technology in renewable energy, especially extending it to rural areas. This is something we are interested in taking forward.

What is the message or outcome you are taking back to the people of your nation after summit?

My people are not interested in greenhouse gas emissions, whether the particulate matters is 350 parts per million or 450 ppm or whether the temperature has increased by two degrees Celsius or three degrees Celsius. What they are interested in knowing is “have you come back with the resources to make us feel a bit safer?” So in answer to your question whether I will be able to go back with the assurance that the resources are on their way, I have to say, I don’t think so!

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