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Kiribati president says climate change is shrinking his country

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Climate change is real, it is causing the reduction of the landmass of Pacific island country Kiribati and it is forcing residents to relocate inward, its president said Wednesday.

Speaking on the sidelines of the 44th Pacific Islands Forum in the Marshall Islands until Friday, Kiribati President Anote Tong said the threat his country faces has caught the attention of Japanese construction firm Shimizu Corp. and broached the idea of constructing a floating island for Kiribati residents.

Kiribati, composed of 33 islands with a total land area of 811 square kilometers, is 3,538 km east of the Marshall Islands and about 4,000 km southeast of Hawaii.

Kiribati is one of the Smaller Island States, along with Marshall Islands, Cook Islands, Nauru, Niue, Palau and Tuvalu, which say they are suffering the worst impact of global warming.

The seven countries are among the 16 members of the Pacific Islands Forum, the others being Australia, Federated States of Micronesia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu. Fiji has been suspended since 2009 due to its military rule.

This year's forum is being held under the theme "Marshalling the Pacific Response to the Climate Challenge."

"We in Kiribati are acknowledging the reality that the landmass based on the scenarios projected will be reduced. And our underground (fresh) water will be contaminated with the rising seas," Tong said. "And so, the ability of the island as they are to sustain the current level of population that we have of a little over 100,000 will be reduced," he added.

Tong said the erosion of Kiribati's shores due to a rising sea level is already taking place and some residents have already relocated to the interior.

"What we are witnessing is a steady (occurrence) and it's becoming more frequent. More communities are being affected. And we're getting intrusion of seawater into freshwater ponds. It's affecting the food crops, they're dying. So, that is affecting lives (of our people)," he said.

While there are efforts being made to maintain the integrity of their islands, the people of Kiribati are not looking at migration as an option, Tong said.

Early this year, he said personnel from Shimizu went to his country to see if a $2 billion floating island that the company has designed is a viable option there.

"It will accommodate something like 30,000 people for the next 100 years. It's something like an oil rig. It will just be a floating city," Tong explained.

For him, though, living on land is still his preference over the spaceship-like island Shimizu designed.

But he cannot say the same for the younger generation on Kiribati who comprise the bigger percent of the population.

"I think, within the next 20 years, we'll begin to need that, provided that we don't do anything else," he said.

Tong expressed fear that even a 2015 international climate change agreement will not be able to save his country, saying, "We're one of those countries for whom this is too late."

"For countries such as Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, it's too late because the projects, the momentum of what's already in the atmosphere will ensure that sea level rises above our islands," he said. "We will be totally devastated. We don't have any high ground to retreat to. That is the reality we have to face."

Tong joins other Pacific island leaders in appealing for assistance from the rest of the world to address climate change, particularly in making funds available.

"The leaders emphasized the urgent need for real action on the ground despite the uncertainty of a sufficient international agreement by 2015 and in ensuring coordination among development partners to maximize adaptation and mitigation results for Smaller Island States," the group said in a communique following a meeting Tuesday.

==Kyodo

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