SOUTH TARAWA, Kiribati – By American standards, Kiribati is a microscopic state. Omitted by most maps, this island country usually goes unnoticed by cargo ships that pound through the waters of the South Pacific in great numbers. But for 100,000 people who live there, Kiribati is their whole world – the world that may soon disappear.
Due to its geographical position, Kiribati was among the places that first celebrated the coming of the 21st century. Although the ceremonies on all of the 33 islands that constitute the country appeared joyous for numerous tourists, a trace of uncertainty could be found on the faces of key officials.
One of those who concealed the panic in a wide grin was Kiribati’s president Teburoro Tito. Himself recently swamped with corruption scandals and international crises that had turned his small country into the centerpiece of Asian politics, Tito realized that those problems could soon become irrelevant. The painful truth is that by 2050, Kiribati might be swallowed by the Pacific Ocean.
Being an island has many advantages but one serious disadvantage: when the water level rises, there is nowhere to go. Although the Republic of Kiribati spans 33 atolls, only a very few can be inhabited. Among them, the capital, South Tarawa, is the main destination of domestic migrations with almost half of the entire population now living there.
Small as it is, Kiribati appears to be the key to Asia. Colonized by the British at the onset of the 19th century, the archipelago witnessed some of the most brutal battles of World War II between the Japanese and Americans. In the modern times, the country hosted a Chinese satellite base until, in 2007, Kiribati officially recognized Taiwan.
But politics is the last of many problems ravaging Kiribati. President Anote Tong, who replaced Tito in 2003, blames global warming for his country’s uncertain future. Touring the world, he says he is fed up with begging powerful countries for financial aid that wouldn’t be needed at all if they tackled their gas emissions.
On Monday, Tong embarked on another journey, this time to find a new home for his people. Although surrounded by giants, such as China and Australia, so far only New Zealand has agreed to receive several thousands fellow islanders. “We will need to relocate our people at some point in time in the future, but so far New Zealand has been the only one able to come forward,” said Tong, disappointed.
According to the data provided by the CIA, an average Kiribati earns approximately $1,000. With the majority of people working in the maritime industry, the archipelago has very little to offer, except for its strategic position and paradise-like beaches. Most of the $73 million that make up for the country’s domestic product come from foreign aid and are spent on basic needs such as food and water.
Most experts say that Kiribati will sooner or later go under water, global warming notwithstanding. They remind that history knows many such incidents with Atlantis being only the most mysterious and popular example. The mighty will not even notice when the whole world for 100,000 people disappears.