As It Happens·Q&A

The tiny Pacific nation of Kiribati wants to raise its islands to save it from the rising sea

The tiny nation of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean is comprised of low-lying islands and atolls — circular land masses with water in the middle — no more than two metres above sea leve

Canadian scientist Paul Kench is advising the Republic of Kiribati on ambitious project

Young boys cover each other in reef-mud near the village of Ambo on South Tarawa in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati, May 25, 2013. Kiribati consists of a chain of 33 atolls and islands that stand just metres above sea level, and its new president hopes to embark on an ambitious project to raise them. (David Gray/Reuters)
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Kiribati is going under.

The tiny nation in the Pacific Ocean is comprised of low-lying islands and atolls — circular land masses with water in the middle — no more than two metres above sea level.

It's under threat by rising sea levels caused by climate change.

For years, its leaders have sounded the alarm — warning that, if nothing changes, the country will soon be unlivable — and its 115,000 citizens will be displaced.

Now Kiribati's president says he will undertake an ambitious plan to raise the islands.

Paul Kench, dean of science at Simon Fraser University, is helping with that scheme, advising the government on how to proceed. He spoke with As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong from Burnaby, B.C. Here is part of their conversation.

Just how tricky will it be to elevate a group of islands? 

This is a challenging project, but technically feasible. One of the issues here is that we need to raise these islands by maybe a metre or more. And so we need the aggregate, which is largely sand and gravel. In these settings, that comes from the deep lagoons where sand and gravel are being flushed into. So we need to dredge that material out of the lagoons and then we need to deposit it on the islands.

And, of course, that sounds easy. But there's houses and infrastructure on those islands. So there would need to be a staged relocation and replacement of a lot of the infrastructure on the island's surfaces.

It's probably important to note that the islands that we're talking about are small. So they're only really 500 metres wide by maybe 1 ½ to two kilometres long. So at that size, they're kind of manageable projects to achieve over a timeframe of a year or several years [each].

Paul Kench, dean of science at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., is helping Kiribati form a plan to buttress itself against rising sea levels caused by climate change. (Submitted by Paul Kench)

But you would literally take all that sand and gravel and, what? Put houses on stilts and fill the gravel in underneath? 

That's right. We've worked on these islands for 20 years and discovered that as sea level rises, waves push up and over the top of islands and naturally deposit sand and gravel on the island surfaces. What we're trying to do here is give nature a hand at certain sites.

This isn't something we would do on every island in the nation because many islands have very few people living on them, and the natural processes will do the work. But where we have sort of more urbanized settings, where natural processes are being compromised, we're trying to work with nature and … build the island surface.

Villagers watch the sunset over a small lagoon near the village of Tangintebu on South Tarawa. The project would involve building the land masses up with sand and gravel. (David Gray/Reuters)

If we look back into the history of many of these islands, the traditional house structures were on poles above the land level. If we could work toward that again, in a more modern contemporary fashion, we're allowing ourselves the flexibility to keep raising and adjusting the island levels. 

It's going to come with a very high price tag. But I guess the cost of not doing it is even more dramatic if we're talking about islands having to pick up and largely move to another country,- Paul Kench, SFU

This isn't a huge landmass we're talking about, but still a massive undertaking. How long will it take to actually pull this off?

Well, if planning began in earnest, I would think within a decade we could be well down the path of pulling this off. It needs a lot of commitment, political will and an enormous amount of resources, of course.

The political will also involves whether they can afford it. How much is this going to cost? 

It's going to come with a very high price tag. But I guess the cost of not doing it is even more dramatic if we're talking about islands having to pick up and largely move to another country, which has for a long time been the default adaptation strategy for these islands. 

This threat is real; this is not some theoretical thing. You're saying this project would take a decade. Do you have enough time with the sea levels rising and the island itself eroding?

The short answer is yes. Sea level's been trimming away at these islands for a couple of decades now. So we've got a handle on the rate at which this is affecting islands.… While this is urgent, it doesn't have to happen in the next 24 months. There's probably a leeway of a couple of decades.

To actually pull this off, can the government of Kiribati afford this? Do they have the money?

In their own budget, no. And that's why they really do need external assistance, both from a technical perspective, but also the financial resources to support such an ambitious project.

Binata Pinata scales a fish as she sits in the sea just off Bikeman islet, located off South Tarawa. (David Gray/Reuters)

An offer has come from China, and there is a fear that accepting any kind of an offer from China would involve strings attached, that, you know, Beijing would want to, say, build military facilities on the islands. How how valid is that concern?

I think there must always be a concern when you're aligning yourself with a major power in that sense. One of the things that we need to recognize is that these atoll countries are extremely isolated. But as a consequence, they become strategically important for some of the major powers.

So America has aligned itself with a number of these small island nations, and China is doing the same. Military operations become first and foremost when these alliances get created.

But there's also a lot of other resources that these countries are interested in. In the Pacific, it's tuna fishing and access to other resources. 

What's the responsibility countries like Canada, Australia, U.K. and the U.S?

They've always had a reasonably long and enduring relationship with the small island nations of the Pacific and, indeed, have contributed a lot of aid funding to support these countries. So I think there is a responsibility to maintain that level of support, despite the fact that there are other actors who are interested in being involved in the community.

If this project to raise the islands doesn't go ahead, what happens?

What we have in each atoll nation is one or two or three islands that are heavily populated with people and where a lot of the economic activity takes place. It's important that we really start to develop sensible, robust adaptation plans for those urban centres.

Without that, they're going to suffer immense economic damage and they're going to have to come up with even further alternate strategies of how they disperse their people across their land resources.

China's President Xi Jinping, left, and Kiribati's President Taneti Maamau attend a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on Jan. 6. China has offered financial assistance for the project, but will likely want some things in return. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

We've heard on this show from former president Anote Tong, who is really pushing for the world to take immediate and radical action to combat climate change to prevent this sort of thing from being needed. Does this project mean that the people of Kiribati have essentially given up hope that action will be taken on climate change?

Anote Tong did a wonderful job at raising global awareness about the plight of atoll nations, and we still need to commit to mitigation of climate change. But despite that, the sea level rise that we're going to expect over the next century is locked in. If we stopped pumping out greenhouse gases tomorrow, sea level is still going to rise.

I think one of the interesting things is a change in attitude of the countries to say: We don't want to flee and go somewhere else. We want to stay.… Let's come up with viable adaptation strategy so that we can remain in place and retain our cultural identity.


Written by Kate Swoger and Brandie Weikle. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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