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Can One Polluted Island Help A Drowning Country?

By Sierra Garcia, Stanford University

Anybody who has made a sandcastle knows that building walls to hold back the ocean is always a losing game. But on an island where the ocean creeps closer every year, it’s a dangerous game people are being forced to play. Kiribati is a country of 33 such islands. With a population of over 100,000 at risk of losing their homes, livelihoods and culture, Kiribati has been thrust into the international spotlight for the impact of climate change and sea level rise.

“Nothing is going to stop the ocean. No amount of money is going to stop the ocean,” says Mike Roman, a cultural anthropologist who considers Kiribati his second home and his host family his second family. “My [host] niece passed away, because seawater got into the well, and it made it brackish. About a week before she turned 3, the rising ocean took her life.” 

Sea walls can’t stop the onslaught of sea level rise on Kiribati.
Credit: Humans of Kiribati

Former Kiribati president Anote Tong says it will only be a few decades before the Kiribati people (known as I-Kiribati) must leave their islands forever. Ideas for dealing with the rising ocean include floating islands, building a giant wall around one of the main islands, or simply migrating to other countries. Migration seems like the only feasible long-term option. Tong calls this trickling away of the Kiribati population “migration with dignity”; Lulu DeBoer, a Kiribati and American filmmaker, calls it “cultural genocide.”

A little-discussed idea that would allow Kiribati to maintain a physical presence in the long run involves an island called Banaba that stands 266 feet above sea level at its highest point. Banaba is the only Kiribati island that will remain above sea level by midcentury.

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“I think that [Banaba] might be the saving grace of Kiribati, and nobody has realized it yet, because it involves the darkest part of Kiribati history,” DeBoer says. She is talking about phosphate mining, and the subsequent displacement of the Banaban people from their land.

The environmental degradation combined with policies that ignored Banaban needs resulted in most Banabans being exiled to Fiji. According to, many Banabans still want to go home. However, because returning to the asbestos-ridden island is dangerous, only 300 live there today. Although Banaba is part of Kiribati, Banabans argue that they should decide what happens to the island, not the Kiribati government.

Even if Banaba were fixed up, it would never be a replacement for the other 32 lost islands. Roman doubts that any I-Kiribati would be happy with the idea. “Just knowing how land is so important, land in Kiribati is everything. Well, no, people are everything. But there are no people without the land.”

Pursuing resettlement on Banaba will depend on whether Kiribati considers maintaining physical land more important than using those funds for adaptation and migration efforts.

What is the significance of having a spot on the globe where someone can point a finger and say that their country exists? Can a culture and a people thrive if their physical homeland is literally gone from the surface of the earth? Kiribati will have to answer these questions very soon. 

Sierra Garcia is a Stanford junior from Monterey, Calif., majoring in Earth Systems with a focus on oceans. She has a longstanding passion for both ocean conservation and science education/communication. She took a gap year in Cuenca, Ecuador, and participated for a quarter in Stanford at SEA last year. Through Stanford at SEA, she was able to visit four Kiribati islands. In the fall she will be studying abroad for a quarter in Australia.