What if life never left the ocean?

Climate change The dying South Sea state of Kiribati

"I've lived here all my life. I've seen what happened. I've seen villages disappear. If I hadn't built a protective wall to the sea, my house would have disappeared. We see all of this happening. We see many protective walls on the islands. Where they aren't, the coast changes. It all happens, but so gradually that we thought, it comes and goes. But science says it's not normal and it doesn't get better. It gets worse. "

"The people who have so much power that they could really change something for the world, they don't listen to me. Because they are doing too well in their lives. Otherwise they would see the urgency. But now they are fine. They are rich. They live in a higher country. If the people on their coasts are suffering from climate change, then they simply move to a higher location. But we in Kiribati, what should we do? "

(picture alliance / dpa / Christiane Oelrich) Eating the sea at home - Fiji and the fight against climate change
The South Sea state of Fiji also knows what the vital fight against climate change is all about. The residents see and feel the effects first hand. Some have already been relocated.

Kiribati, the island nation in the middle of the Pacific, has gained notoriety as the country that may be the first to fall victim to climate change. Whoever approaches Kiribati by water or from the air, first crosses eternal deep blue, and at some point the deep blue becomes a little lighter, turquoise, a huge lagoon begins, and behind it lies a narrow strip of white coral sand and green palm trees.

And the ocean rushes against it from the other side. They are narrow strips, fragile land, the highest point on the main island of South Tarawa is three meters above sea level. 33 narrow atolls spread over a huge expanse of water, the size of the United States, but only two percent of it is land, above and below the equator, left and right of the 180th degree of longitude, islands between sky and sea.

The small, peaceful country at the other end of the world - 14,000 km and 50 hours by flight from Germany - seems to be in the middle of nowhere, and yet it is in the middle of world events, in one of the most decisive developments of our time:

"We always thought we were so isolated here that we were far away from everything that is happening in the rest of the world. But that's not true. There are no limits to the climate change we are exposed to. I have said many times that climate change cannot be tackled on a national level, but on a global, common level. We are at the center of it all. We are right in the middle of it because we are the first to disappear

The sea level is rising

Anote Tong was President of Kiribati from 2003 to 2016; He has tirelessly drawn attention to the threatening fate of his country, to villages that are disappearing, freshwater springs that are salty, banks that are eroding, trees that are dying.

(Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

"The rising sea level hits us hard. When the high tide comes, it goes straight into our house," says Aouieta, who lives with her family in a house three meters away from the ocean - but hardly a house is not built close to the water here ; There is little space on the main island of Tarawa, 60,000 people live in a density that is comparable to Tokyo.

"We tried to protect the house with sand, but it didn't hold up. We never know when the high tide will come, so when it comes at night we all wake up and run away, trying to get our things done quickly on the roof so that the water doesn't get to it. "

Kiribati lost ground: garbage piles up everywhere, wrecked cars lie on the road. (picture alliance / dpa / Christiane Oelrich)

The house with the roof made of palm and pandanus mesh is full of people, seven couples with children lie, camp, sleep, live here in a single large room, without walls, on 28 square meters. You actually lived on one of the so-called Outer Islands, which is the name of all other islands except this main island. But because her children get school support here, Aouieta's family has just moved here.

At its widest point, the island is a few hundred meters wide, little space for many people, so they try to gain land from the sea with sea walls, protective walls and protect what is there. These walls are composed of sand, car tires, cement sacks, pieces of coral, whatever is available - but in many places the sea has failed these attempts.

Floods destroy protective walls

The high tides, the Kingtides, are becoming more and more common, the residents say. Winds are getting stronger. For the year 2100, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a rise in sea levels of up to 80 centimeters if the temperature rises by 2 degrees compared to pre-industrial values. 80 centimeters - for a country like Kiribati, which is usually only two meters above sea level, a horror scenario. At dusk, Anote Tong, the country's former president, sits on the platform of his Kia-Kia, the little hut without walls in front of the house, and looks out over the ocean. He sees how the floods have destroyed his neighbors' protective walls.

"We see what is happening here in Kiribati. We always thought it was all normal because we had no scientific knowledge about it. But when we look at the studies and what we have seen - it fits together perfectly, supports them each other. So I believe that in Madrid, as at every climate conference, we will decide on the future of humanity. "

Kiribati is going under, rising sea levels are wiping out the country - that's what it was said for a long time. The sinking paradise - a perfect picture to illustrate climate change, simply and understandably. But as is often the case, it is a little more complicated.

The Marshall Islands are particularly hard hit by climate change. (dpa / picture-alliance)

Studies by New Zealand scientists have studied the changes in some Pacific islands over the course of 40 years. They discovered that many of the islands are growing, that land, i.e. sand and gravel, is being eroded away in some places. But in other places the islands expand, there material is washed up. Atolls are therefore dynamic structures, not static, as is often assumed, so they can adapt in terms of surface area.

These findings are often cited to refute the history of the sinking atoll. Kiribati serves as a prime example for both sides, for warning voices as well as for climate change deniers.

Groundwater becomes salty lake water

For the residents of Kiribati, survival is at stake. Atolls are ring- or horseshoe-shaped reefs, mostly made of coral. On the one hand, their constant renewal, as found in the New Zealand studies, can only work if the reefs are healthy. But many reefs are dying, because the rising water temperatures lead to coral bleaching, which affects the reefs severely.

On the other hand, that says nothing about the habitability of the newly grown areas, about the possibility of living and growing food here.

"How do you explain what happens in the remote village communities where seawater has entered the freshwater source. People don't move with the sediment. When they say the islands are growing, are these habitable areas? That's unrealistic."

The image of the sinking islands was held up to Anote Tong again and again - as something that he had instrumentalized. But that is not correct. It already sounded different in 2012: He announced the decision to buy land in Fiji for his people, especially to give the younger generation the opportunity to emigrate with dignity and not to flee somewhere panic and chaotic.

And even then he justified this with the penetration of lake water into the groundwater. The groundwater is vital for trees and crops. If rain, flood and storm patterns change, it is at least as threatening as the sea level, which has so far only risen slightly, according to Tong.

"Our country is very fragile. It is exposed to the full force of any weather. When we have strong winds and the high tides break in on our islands, then we need water most urgently."

A network against climate change

Claire Anterea is fighting for clean water and toilets for everyone in Kiribati on behalf of the government. She also co-founded Kirican, the Kiribati Climate Action Network, with Pelenise Alofa. Because the existing global Climate Action Network, the network of fighters against climate change, had no representatives from the Pacific until then.

"Water is the biggest problem here. When there is a drought and there is not enough rainwater, the groundwater becomes salinized. And when the sea penetrates our land and our wells, it becomes even salty. So, we have a water problem."

Mangrove forests that are flooded by high tide (Deutschlandradio / Carsten Upadek)
The children of Taakenbairiki Primary School on Tarawa sing the song about mangrove planting, with various hand movements they show how they plant the mangrove seedlings, how the roots of the trees hold onto the ground, how the fish swim between the roots and how the treetop spreads out to provide shade . In the spirit of Pelenise Alofa and Kirican

"Not only do we raise people's awareness of climate change, we teach them how to adapt. How to plant mangroves to protect their land. When we have money, we hand out bags of cement to help them get theirs." Can reinforce protective walls. "

First graders and climate change

The school yard of the elementary school is behind a high protective wall directly on the ocean. The children in first grade learn how their lives will change. They talk to their teacher about whether they will soon emigrate to New Zealand or Australia or China. Because the tides are getting higher and higher. And why is that? The teacher asks? Climate change, answer the children.

However, the most important part of traditional Kiribati food is fish. Caught with a spear, with a net, or, as Penetito is doing, with an outrigger canoe and ropes. He paddles out onto the lagoon in front of Abaiang.

"I fish for a living, I can sell the fish and use it to pay for everything we need, but above all we always have enough fish ourselves. It's a traditional part of our culture, an ancient art of men. The sons learn it, my father taught me as a teenager. "

Hardly any more fish, hardly any earnings

Penetito dives for mussels in the shallow water of the lagoon, cracks them and hangs them on the hook as bait. Here or in front of the reef he catches jacks, red snapper and tuna, but mainly on the high seas. Lately there is less and less fish for them, the local traditional fishermen. Because Kiribati makes part of its income by granting fishing licenses to countries like Korea or Japan. And so fish factories floating between the atolls clear the seas. Even so, Penetito would have a hard time giving up this life.

"A life without fishing? I grew up here, fishing is part of the culture of Kiribati. So if we have to leave Kiribati, then my life no longer has any meaning if I can't fish. Now every day is still full of hope. So is life in Kiribati, but if we have to leave then my life is without hope and meaning. "

In a school on Abaiang, the final class is adopted. Almost a hundred students embark on a new life. Where their future will take them is uncertain. The lower grades sing them a farewell song:

"The end is the beginning of everything, the world is very big. We'd better start moving on now." This is the text, and: "It is only the beginning of the excerpt". Does that apply to all of Kiribati?

Tuna are mainly fished in the Pacific (imago images / Winfried Rothermel)
What Anote Tong, the former President of Kiribati, demanded and promoted, was "migration with dignity," as he called it. So the early requests for help, the purchase of land in Fiji, the public appeals to the world and its land, so that awareness of the threats posed by climate change grows.

Since his successor Taneti Maamau took office, he has done everything to stop the idea of ​​"migration in dignity". Taneti Maamau takes a different approach. In a video he advertises his program of staying and adapting:

"We have a vision for the next 20 years. We call it the Kiribati Vision 20 Years. Tourism and fishing are our most important sectors and we want to promote their development in order to give our people a better world. But for that we need help from partners . "

New home in Australia and New Zealand

Outside of advertising, however, people laugh at this vision; hardly anyone takes it seriously. Even ex-President Anote Tong has nothing to do with his successor's change of course:

"That's the stupidest thing ever! Using a cause of survival politically. It's a bad, terrible situation. We won't have everything we'd like in the future. So make your choice. Take the least bad option."

Fiji, Australia or New Zealand, that is where most people go, even if they will miss their culture, their way of life, the fishing, the dances and the songs very much. Because whether the islands are sinking or not - Kiribati, its culture and the future of its people are on the verge of extinction. But there is one thing Claire Anterea wants to keep:

"If the worst comes to the worst with climate change, we can no longer live here. But I want to go away together. If I move to Australia or New Zealand or anywhere else, then I want to do it together. Not just with my family, but with my village . And with the whole country. That would be my dream that we all move together.