New assessment says Kiribati vulnerable to coastal flooding and erosion and identifies investments and recommendations to protect coastal communities.

The Kiribati Ministry of Environment, Lands and Agriculture Developments, the Stimson Centre, and the Commonwealth Secretariat, through Commonwealth Blue Charter programme, on 22 August 2022 announced completion of a rapid assessment of climate and ocean risks and options to address these risks in Tarawa, Kiribati. The three partner organisations collected data on the extent of climate and ocean risks and surveyed dozens of local experts in order to determine priority climate action and steps for the country to undertake in 2022 and beyond. 

The CORVI Rapid Assessment identified significant ecological and financial risk, highlighting Tarawa’s very high vulnerability to coastal flooding as well as the country’s economic and budgetary reliance on revenue from offshore foreign-flagged purse seine tuna fishing.  

The report made three priority recommendations:  

  • Implement integrated flood management and mitigation using artificial and natural infrastructure, such as building seawalls and restoring key marine ecosystems, especially coral reefs.
  • Move towards a circular economy that emphasises reducing, reusing and recycling all forms of waste. Tarawa’s remoteness and dependence on the blue economy make exporting or dumping waste unviable.
  • Diversify Kiribati’s economy. Developing sustainable coastal tourism and harnessing human capital by investing in green innovation and entrepreneurs would reduce reliance on fishing industries which are themselves at risk. 

These recommendations stem from the highest risk indicator scores – Percent of People Living Below 5 Metres Above Sea Level (9.20), Percent of Island at Risk of Flooding (8.77), and Rate of Coastal Erosion (8.60) reflect the vulnerability of an island with a maximum height of 2-3 metres. Sea levels are expected to rise by 0.44-0.76 metres by 2100 according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and sea level rise may cover more than 50 percent of Tarawa’s land threatening over 60 percent of the island’s population. The flooding, together with inadequate solid waste management and sewage practices, puts the island’s limited freshwater resources in jeopardy. Solid and human waste, together with habitat destruction, overexploitation of marine resources, and other drivers have also damaged marine ecosystems which are important to the lives and livelihoods of island residents. Further, the second highest indicator score, Percent of National Economy Based in Offshore Fisheries (8.87), reveals Kiribati’s economic dependence on offshore fishing by foreign flagged fleets.  

Ruth Cross of the Climate Finance Division in the Kiribati Ministry of Finance & Economic Development said,

“Kiribati, a large ocean state of low-lying coral atolls, is at the forefront of islands impacted by threats associated with climate change. Saltwater intrusion, coastal erosion, and food insecurity is a current reality for many I-Kiribati people.  Motivated by resilience, adaptation and innovation, we chose to participate in the CORVI Rapid Assessment because we need information that can help us plan strategic actions and gain access to international climate resilience funding to help us diversify and build our blue economy while protecting communities against increasing threats.” 

Full recommendations 

Details behind the recommendations for Kiribati determined from this research include:  

  • Implement integrated flood management and mitigation: Tarawa’s extremely high level of vulnerability to flooding, especially as global sea levels rise, demands a diversified approach to mitigating and managing flood risk and reducing coastal erosion. This should include a mix of both artificial and natural infrastructure, such as building seawalls and restoring key marine ecosystems, especially coral reefs. Monitoring of site-specific land accretion and erosion can further inform necessary adjustments to the plans. Land changes should also be part of the solution, especially for land that is not protected by hard or natural infrastructure. This can include raising low-lying land and making improvements to land-based infrastructure, such as raising houses. These kinds of strategies form a key part of both the Kiribati Joint National Action Plan on Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management (KJIP) and the Kiribati Climate Change Policy (CCP). 
  • Move towards a circular economy: Improving solid and human waste management and reducing marine debris will help strengthen natural coastal defenses and reduce the impact of flooding. Given Tarawa’s remoteness and its dependence on the blue economy, both exporting and dumping waste are unviable. Kiribati should therefore encourage a move towards a circular economy, employing the three R’s – reduce, reuse, and recycle all forms of waste. For example, reusing materials could include utilizing waste in hard infrastructure or land reclamation projects. Waste collection processes should also be improved through a combination of community education, and increased public and private collection services. Lessons learned in Tarawa could be shared with other islands in the archipelago. 
  • Diversify Kiribati’s economy: Increased revenue from offshore purse seine fishery licenses to foreign-flagged fleets fishing for tuna—especially skipjack tuna—has driven Kiribati’s rapid economic growth in recent years. Management steps like the Vessel Day Scheme (VDS) have been taken to improve the sustainability of this sector and should continue. However, benefits can also be gained by further diversifying the economy and using Kiribati’s natural and human capital more effectively. Developing sustainable coastal tourism would leverage Kiribati’s wealth of natural resources, reduce unemployment, and increase tax revenues, while preserving and enhancing Kiribati’s natural and cultural heritage. Kiribati can also better harness its human capital by investing in green innovation and entrepreneurs, with a focus on climate adaptation planning, renewable energy technology, and solid waste management that have been identified as high-risk areas in this assessment. Diversifying Kiribati’s economy would also reduce the risk related to the percentage of the national economy based in near shore and offshore fishing industries, both of which ranked as high risk in this assessment. 

“The data collected and presented by the rapid assessment will give leaders and communities in Kiribati the information they need to continue to address the runaway flood situation there, and begin to improve its direly inadequate waste management systems. By investing in infrastructure to mitigate flooding, moving towards a circular economy that emphasizes the recycling of waste, and diversifying its economy away from offshore fishing licenses, Kiribati can prepare for urgent climate problems that will only worsen over time,” said Heidi Prislan, Adviser for Commonwealth Blue Charter.

“The CORVI Rapid Assessment confirms that the climate situation in Kiribati is dire. This report provides Kiribati with an urgent road map for actions to address several economic and ecological issues that will continue to deteriorate without swift and strong interventions. The Rapid Assessment will provide Kiribati with the information it needs to make the case to international development organisations and funders alike that they desperately need help to build climate resilience in Tarawa and its surrounding areas. We’re so grateful to the Kiribati government and local stakeholders for investing the time and for opening itself up to the assessment, which we know will help them to tackle urgent needs like flood resiliency, waste management systems and diversify their economy.” said Sally Yozell, Senior Fellow, Director of the Stimson Center’s Environmental Security Programme, and CORVI Project lead 

About CORVI Rapid Assessment 

The Rapid Assessment is based on and complements the Climate and Ocean Risk Vulnerability Index (CORVI) tool, an innovative risk analysis tool that compares a diverse range of economic, social, and environmental risks to produce climate and ocean risk profiles for coastal cities. These detailed profiles help governments, businesses, and financial institutions assess climate risk and pinpoint key areas of action to help the government adapt to the climate emergency. As one of three pilot project countries, Kiribati officials work with expert analysts to review the results, better understand the available options, and formulate next steps that should be taken to develop climate-smart policies based on the report’s recommendations. 

This project was supported by the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance (ORRAA) and was funded with UK aid from the UK government.

This story was originally published at The Commonwealth on 22 August 2022 by Josephine Latu-Sanft, reposted via PACNEWS.

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