Kiribati will be one of the first countries to go under if sea levels continue to rise. Inhabitants of the islands look on anxiously as world leaders decide how to mitigate climate change in Cancun.
The Kiribati islands will be some of the first places to go under should waters rise
As the world attempts to reach some sort of agreement on how to combat climate change, a tiny nation in the Central Pacific looks on anxiously. At only a few meters above sea level, some predict the people of Kiribati could be some of the first to have to abandon their homes.
"The big leaders are not interested in small nations like us," said Linda Uan, one of many in Kiribati who have had their homes inundated during storm surges. "You almost get a feeling that it is OK to sacrifice one hundred thousand people than to hinder progress or development in their own countries".
Having to constantly rebuild and reinforce housing like she does is a major setback for development but it's not the only threat to the inhabitability of the country.
Struggling to survive
Sea level rise also has impacts on food and water security. For a tiny nation already buckling under a dense and growing population, even a moderate rise in sea level could suffocate many of its small islands.
Linda Uan worries Kiribati is not high priority for world leaders
As rising sea water seeps into the island's groundwater, people in Kiribati could be forced to move long before their homes are under water.
"It's not just the humans that depend groundwater but the trees and the crops as well," said Mike Foon, Kiribati's climate change policy officer, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.
The state of the country's groundwater means Kiribati now has the highest rate of infant death from diarrhoea in the Pacific. As the population swells, this once self-sustaining nation has to rely on expensive and often imported food to survive.
By 2050, the global number of people displaced by climate change is expected to reach 200 million, and there is currently no definition or international agreement in place to help them relocate or even to combat climate change.
But Kiribati's Vice President Teima Onorio says progress is being made.
Ground water is being contaminated by sea water in Kiribati.
"I don't believe that immediate solutions can be reached but it is important that consultations are ongoing, he said.
"That we continue to meet and discuss with one another how we can mitigate impacts of climate change, encourage developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and take other steps that will help alleviate the impacts of climate change."
Aside from building sea walls to hold back the water for as long as they can, Vice President Onorio is realistic about the need to consider migration as an option.
"In terms of migration, we believe in Kiribati that we need to take steps from now, we can't afford to wait," he said. "And we need to look at options that will ensure the security of our people."
Already, people from Kiribati are moving away, with Pacific neighbors, including Australia, offering opportunities for migration.
As the original estimates on sea level rise look increasingly conservative, the people of Kiribati are determined to survive, wherever the forces of change may take them.
Author: Lauren Day, Natalia Dannenberg
Editor: Cyrus Farivar