Water on Water: Kiribati in Crisis

Tony Whincup, School of Visual & Material Culture, Massey Univ.
This photo essay considers the enormity of the impact of even small changes to indigenous practices intimately linked to a specific land and sea and the subsequent threats for the survival of the culture itself.
The Republic of Kiribati comprises Banaba (Ocean Island) to the west and Christmas Island and the Line Islands to the east, with Kiribati (the Gilbert Islands) and Rawaki (the Phoenix Islands) between them. Although the land area is only 800 square kilometres, the atolls are spread over approximately three million square kilometres of ocean. This group, comprising thirty-three coral atolls, lies along the equator about half way between Hawaii and Australia. Trade winds moderate a hot, humid, tropical marine climate.
The sixteen atolls that comprise the main island group of Kiribati, straddle the equator due north of New Zealand. The land, heartbreakingly threatened by ecologically offensive nations, rises a mere two metres above the sea. The atolls are tiny peaks of vast undersea mountains that rise through the depths of the Pacific Ocean. The reefs are the defence against relentless waves upon these precarious landfalls. There is nowhere, not even in the centre of the lagoon, that the incessant roar of the breakers is not heard. The sound of the sea is inescapable in Kiribati.
Sea dominates life – this is a world of water. The nearest island is over the horizon, and a major land mass a thousand miles of endless ocean away. Only a narrow strip of land divides the ocean from the lagoon. The peaceful and gentle, the deep and strong, the inner and outer are in constant contrast.
These tiny ribbons of coral are the home of the I-Kiribati.

The cultural practices of the I-Kiribati are particular to the here and now – to the land and the sea and its resources. Subsistence life on an atoll is held in a fine balance between the limited resources, the ingenious use of traditional skills and the weather – an inter-relationship that is vulnerable to even the slightest environmental change.
Simply being wet and windy disrupts many fundamental subsistence practices that have been developed with the expectation of being able to dry things. Heavy rainfall and strong winds disturb the established patterns of copra production, the drying and preparation of pandanus for weaving mats, house building, fishing, the collection of toddy from the coconut tree, and the preparation of the vital sennit string. Cultural knowledge, carefully developed over time and in specific relation to the environment, integrates all aspects of life to maintain sustainable survival strategies.
No amount of additional technology and adaptation strategies will combat a rise in sea level or an increase in precipitation. There is nowhere for the I-Kiribati to go, there is no ‘higher ground’ to retreat to, there is no alternative source of potable water should the water lens shrink and there are no alternative food sources should the ecosystem of the reef break down. Although land is at risk, of much greater importance is the danger of losing a unique culture. The lives and communities on these tiny coral atolls are the human and personal face of the economic and political debates of Kyoto, Bali and beyond.


  1. This was a very inspirational lecture. As an ex-resident of Abemama and an indigenous person to New Zealand the lecture was inspirational and shattering at the same time.
    I am really looking forward to your reapeat leacture and am bring my family who also lived there. My Dad was involved in research on readiness for independence of the then Gilbert islands.
    As an indigenous person myself the thought of loss of whenua is truly horrific. As you so rightly pointed out though, it is also all the practices, materials, and the relationship with an environment that will also be lost too.
    Thank you for bring this korero.

  2. I study people’s perceptions of climate change in the Marshall Islands, and although I whole-heartedly support your mission to raise awareness about threatened coral atoll nations, and to convince people to combat climate change, I’m afraid that the message you’re conveying may be counterproductive. You celebrate the I-Kiribati relationship to the environment, yet you seriously downplay their ability to adapt to change. Of course, if the coral bleaches too much, the seas rise too much, and storm activity increases by too much, then no amount of effort to adapt is going to save the country from uninhabitability. But no one knows for sure exactly how large the changes from global warming are going to be, and how reefs and coral islands are going to react. It is possible that, if the changes are not too enormous, the people of Kiribati (and the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Tokelau, Maldives, etc.) will be able to hang on to their homeland. When you say that “No amount of additional technology and adaptation strategies will combat a rise in sea level or an increase in precipitation”, your mission seems to be to call attention to the severity of the problem. I support that. But by putting it in such hopeless terms, you’re discouraging local people from acting.
    The photographs are part of this. They are beautiful, to be sure, but they emphasize the ocean so much that one almost forgets that there is in fact land. The islands of Kiribati are not sandspits, as one gets the impression from these photographs. They are small coral islets with soil and trees. Yes, they are profoundly threatened by climate change, but they are not going to disappear tomorrow. It is conceivable that the people will be able to stay long into the future, but if they believe that they can’t adapt even to small changes, then it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    Why do I make this argument? I make this argument because in the country that I study, the Marshall Islands, little has been done to prepare for the threat. I think there are several reasons for this, but one of them is media coverage in which coral atoll nations serve as nothing but allegories of indigenous harmony destroyed by the West, or as canaries in the mine that must perish to warn us of the dangers of global warming. Such stories, however well intentioned, are not helping local people prepare for the problems ahead.

  3. Comments in response to Peter R-G
    Thank you for your comments with regard to my article on Kiribati and the potential danger of climate change – particularly in relationship to precipitation. You make an important point in terms of I-Kiribati ability to adapt. In my experience the I-Kiribati are a creative, ingenious and practical people, witness the magnificent meeting houses and elegant, fast outrigger canoes. I am concerned with the dangers arising from rapid changes in the climate or changes that destroy the very land on which people have to live.
    I also agree with you that the land is no ‘sand spit’, but it is tiny – low and narrow – to an extent that I find people who have not had first hand experience find hard to envisage. A sense of dominance and inevitable inter-action with the sea was the effect I was trying to make with my photos.
    This brief statement is more aimed for the non I-Kiribati and, using Kiribati as a case study, emphasizes the social aspect of the effects of a change in weather conditions. The reality is that Kiribati is feeling the effects of unusual weather patterns now
    The President, Anote Tong, in his speech at Otago University on June 8th, 2008 said;
    ‘We are already experiencing the adverse and devastating impacts of Climate Change. These include, among others:
    • prolonged periods of droughts affecting food and water security;
    • the destruction of coastal settlements through increasing high tides and more severe wave action;
    • the emergence of new diseases as the quality of our ground water lens deteriorates;
    • coral bleaching affecting the marine life; and
    • the high cost of Climate Change impacts on socio-economic development.’
    and in his concluding paragraphs he continues,
    ‘If the worst case scenario eventuates, we would not want to be considered environmental refugees. That would not work for anyone. And we would like to take the move with some dignity. We would like our people to be absorbed into their new countries as worthwhile citizens able to contribute to the country’s economy. And that would be important psychologically for a people who would have lost their identity through the loss of their lands.’
    My intention would never be to inculcate a sense of ‘hopelessness’, but it is important to consider the possibility and the alternatives to the total loss of land for the I-Kiribati at some point in the future.
    Tony W

  4. Hi Tony,
    I attended your lecture at Massey, your photographs are amazing. It is so sad that it has come to this: still the public needs convincing that climate change is inevitable, even when islands such as Kiribati are heart wrenching evidence! Peter R-G is right in that they’re deterioration shouldn’t just be warnings to the rest of us, though in saying that I hope by raising awareness adaption programs can be further implemented. I’m writing a project proposal on adaptation possibilities for Kiribati (as an environmentalist and anthropologist), any info or insights?
    If you prefer to email my address is charliebrowne_the_great@hotmail.com
    Thanks again, very interesting lecture.

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