The choice to study the states of the Republic of Kiribati and Tuvalu is not arbitrary, the countries have been chosen due to the particularities of the Pacific region (Locke, 2009; DeJesus, 2018;
Ayeb-Karlsson & Uy, 2021).12 The case of Oceania, due to its singular territorial layout of small
12 While this study focuses on the vulnerability of the small island states in the Pacific Ocean, not all island states in the region are equally sensitive to environmental degradation. Multiple states are located on more elevated islands that have large reserves of potable water. However, despite the lesser impact in some of the states in the region, such as
island states, remains partially unaffected by violent conflicts for the control of natural resources (McNamara & Gibson, 2009; Hunt, 2013; Heslin et al., 2019).13 Therefore, making it one of the few regions where it is more apparent that the displacements are prompted by environmental degradation rather than by violence, economic, or social factors (Podesta, 2019, p. 2; Guadagno, 2021). This thesis covers the studies of the Republic of Kiribati and Tuvalu, where non-immediate effects of environmental degradation, such as the salinization of water, erosion of coastlines, and aridification of the land, jeopardize the natural resources and the habitability in the islands, thus triggering displacements (McNamara & Gibson, 2009; Barnett, 2017; Zambrano et al., 2019).
3.1.1 The Republic of Kiribati
The Republic of Kiribati is a small island state situated on the Equator and the International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean, with a total area of 811 km2 (World Health Organization (WHO), 2020;
World Bank, 2020). It consists of 32 atolls,14 and one coral island divided between three island groupings:15 the Gilbert Islands, the Phoenix Islands, and the Line Islands.16 The Republic of Kiribati is experiencing serious effects of environmental degradation that have not only environmental consequences but also social and humanitarian implications. Kiribati’s concern with environmental degradation has placed addressing climate change as the principal topic of its national and international policy (Government of Kiribati, 2005, 2015, 2018, 2019). The islands
Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, a potential impact on the environment commonly occurs throughout all states in the region (Edwards, 1999; Barnett & Adger, 2003; McNamara & Gibson, 2009).
13 The displacements triggered by environmental reasons affect different countries in the world (Anzellini et al., 2020).
In some cases, the lack of resources as a consequence of damages in the environment can create violent conflicts and war, economic recession, inflation and volatile prices, and inequality and poverty (Pettinger, 2019).
14 An atoll is a ring-shaped coral island that surrounds and separates partially or completely a body of seawater. Usually, atolls are located on the rim of an extinct volcano or a seamount that is partially submerged allowing corals to grow and form reefs (Migon, 2010, pp. 350–351).
15 See Appendix II, Table 1 for a political map of the Republic of Kiribati, Table 2 for a topographic map of the elevation of the island of Tarawa, and Table 3 for a topographic map of the island of Kiritimati.
16 The coral composition of the islands is essential to understand the effect of environmental displacements in the island states of Oceania. The corals, which are the main components of the atolls and reef islands, are marine living invertebrates of the Anthozoa family (Hughes et al., 2020). Because they are living creatures, they can respond to the changes in the sea level and dynamically adapt to their environment (Webb & Kench, 2010; Graham et al., 2011;
Morais et al., 2020). Some islands in Kiribati and Tuvalu have increased their area to adapt to the human and environmental changes in the past decade, however, the rise of sea level is increasing faster than the coral growth rate.
Another issue connected to the environmental degradation that affects the corals is the ocean acidification and increase in ocean temperatures, which damages and destroys the coral polyps, hindering their adaptative response and even killing the corals (Kench et al., 2018).
that form the Republic of Kiribati have an average altitude of fewer than two meters above sea level and a width smaller than 1,000 meters.
Due to these characteristics, the Republic of Kiribati is susceptible to suffer from “sea-level rise, leading to coastal erosion, salinization of potable water supplies and degradation of agricultural land” (Locke, 2009, p. 176). The inevitable rise of the sea level due to global warming and climate change will cause further salinization of the soil until the islands are mostly submerged (Adger et al., 2018; Government of Kiribati, 2019; WHO, 2020). In the 1990s, two small islets disappeared underwater, raising the concern about the impact of environmental deterioration (World Bank, 2020). This makes the state amongst the top ten most vulnerable countries to environmental degradation in the world (Ayers & Huq, 2007, p. 2; Webb & Kench, 2010; Webber, 2013; World Bank, 2020).
The population of the Republic of Kiribati is around 119,200 people, but due to the uneven development of the islands the population is unequally distributed, and around 90 % of the population lives on the Gilbert Islands (Government of Kiribati, 2019). The average population density is 147 people/km2, but this varies widely from 13 people/km2 in rural, non-urbanized, underdeveloped outer islands such as Kiritimati to nearly 11,270 people/km2 in the small island of Betio, which is located near the island of South Tarawa (World Bank, 2020). The population in South Tarawa, the capital and the urban center of the country, is 40,500 people, with a population density of 2,518 people/km2. South Tarawa, with less than 16 km2 of land, is thus the residence of more than one-third of the population of the state (WHO, 2020; World Bank, 2020).
The uneven development occurred due to significant internal migration from outer islands towards the capital. The urban migration was caused by a combination of economic and environmental factors, which further exacerbated the environmental problems (Brotoisworo, 2010; Government of Kiribati, 2015; Barnett & McMichael, 2018). The redistribution of the population, and the short period in which the internal migrations have occurred, have burdened the environment by creating an imbalance between the available resources and the population, leading to strained local capacities that cannot meet the needs of the population (Government of Kiribati, 2019). The internal migration to urbanized areas is generally perceived by legislators, as well as by most of the affected persons in terms of economic migration, rather than in terms of environmental displacements (Skeldon, 2018). However, there is an evident correlation between the
environmental impact and the displacements within the islands, as the outer islands are more affected by water scarcity and droughts, coastal erosion, storm surges, and coral reef depletion (McLeman & Hunter, 2009; Heslin et al., 2019; WHO, 2020).
The unsustainable growth of the population in the main cities has led to “poor sanitary conditions associated with inadequate sewerage and lack of garbage disposal systems, and a stress on local health facilities” (Locke, 2009, p. 174). This has worsened the living conditions of the islanders, which has contributed to the highest human poverty index in the Pacific Islands (World Bank, 2020). The increase of the population in the capital also has an impact on natural resources, including scarcity of land, difficult agricultural conditions, scant food production, and insufficient potable water sources and filtration systems (Locke, 2009; Government of Kiribati, 2015, 2019).
The percentage of arable land on the island is 2.47 %, of which less than 40 % is dedicated to planting crops permanently, making 8.3 km2 of permanent land used for crop production in the whole state (World Bank, 2020). This has risen the rates of malnutrition amongst the population due to iron, vitamin A and protein deficiency, directly caused by the lack of available resources to feed the population (Moseley et al., 2013, p. 191; Hayashi et al., 2019). Consequently, poor nutrition has affected the life expectancy of the inhabitants of Kiribati, especially those in South Tarawa (Locke, 2009; WHO, 2020). The lifespan of the I-Kiribati17 is on average around 69 years, which is around ten years shorter than that of the other Pacific islands (World Bank, 2020).
The greatest climate change-induced threat to the population of the Republic of Kiribati is the potable water scarcity and waterborne diseases (Hunt, 2013, p. 147).18 The increase in the ocean temperature causes a rise in sea levels, which breaches the porous underground water table that holds most of the potable water available on the island (Government of Kiribati, 2019). The breach of saline water into the freshwater increases the salinity of the aquifers, thus polluting it and making it unapt for human consumption. Consequently, the main water resources located in the islands have become unusable, pushing people to find new sources of fresh water, which can lead to displacements (Thomas, 2003, pp. 8, 25; Government of Kiribati, 2019; Guadagno, 2021). This problem has led to huge investments in freshwater infrastructure in an attempt to cover the needs
17 I-Kiribati is the demonym to refer to the nationals of the Republic of Kiribati.
18 Waterborne diseases are caused by contaminated water, which has been in contact with pathogenic micro-organisms (Pons et al., 2015).
of the population in South Tarawa (Locke, 2009, p. 177; Government of Kiribati, 2015, 2019).
However, the outer islands were not provided with the water supply infrastructure, thus making it another “significant influence on migratory factors” (Locke, 2009, p. 177).
The Kiribati government has launched some measures to decrease the issues related to overpopulation and the uneven distribution of resources (Government of Kiribati, 2018, 2019). The
‘Integrated Land and Population Development Programme’ was approved in 2005 under the strategy titled The National Republic of Kiribati Climate Change Adaptation (Government of Kiribati, 2005). This strategy aimed to stabilize the population and to relocate and distribute the population of Tarawa atoll amongst the islands, through “government-sponsored family planning programs and large-scale inter-island relocation” (Locke, 2009, p. 177). This strategy does not guarantee a long-term solution since the rising sea levels will eventually compromise the livelihood in the islands, again leading to – both internal and external – displacements (Government of Kiribati, 2019; WHO, 2020).
The magnitude of the impact of the displacements has led to a lawsuit by a national of Kiribati in 2013, Mr. Teitiota, who claimed to be a “climate change refugee” seeking asylum. The New Zealand High Court ( NZHC 3125, Teitiota v Chief Executive of the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment) dismissed the allegations, and the New Zealand Supreme Court ( NZSC 107, Teitiota v Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment) confirmed the ruling against the application of the refugee status. However, the Supreme Court left to future decisions the possibility of accepting ‘climate change refugees’ as a pathway to create a jurisdiction that would protect persons affected by environmental degradation (ibid., para. 13).
Tuvalu is the fourth-smallest country in the world, with a total area of under 30 km2 of land, situated in the Polynesian region in the Pacific Ocean.19 It has an estimated population of around 11,800 people (World Bank, 2020). The land area is a volcanic archipelago that consists of nine small islands that rise on average a meter above sea level, six of which are coral atolls and three reef islands. Tuvalu’s fragile ecosystem and the everchanging environment have been aggravated by
19 See Appendix II, Table 4 for a geographic map of Tuvalu; and Table 5 for a topographic map to showcase the elevation of the island of Funafuti.
environmental degradation, and it has become so drastic that there is hardly any possibility to revert the effects and to adapt to the new habitat, which could make Tuvalu unhabitable in the next 100 years (Parks & Roberts, 2006, p. 351; Than et al., 2009; Mason, 2011; WHO, 2017; World Bank, 2020). The environmental issues triggered by environmental degradation are diverse in nature and consequences. Since 2000, floods have continuously hit the islands and drastically damaged the potable water resources and the fauna and flora on the island; and the progressive increase in the tide gauge caused has risen approximately twice as much as the global average, putting Tuvalu into a very sensitive position (UN Development Programme, 2016; Kench et al., 2018; Movono, 2018).
The increase in the sea level in 2007 lead to the disappearance of an islet. These natural disasters have increased the migration flows to the capital Funafuti (UN Development Programme, 2016;
Barnett, 2017), thus putting stress on agricultural production, arable land, food production and storage, and potable water supply.
Funafuti is located in the Funafuti atoll, and it has a land area of 2.4 km2 and a total population of about 6,000 people (World Bank, 2020). Due to the lack of land space for building new settlements for the increasing number of people, around 35 % of infrastructures in Funafuti are built on water over sand and garbage-filled borrow pits (Tautai, 2015), consequently compromising the stability of the infrastructure and breaching the basic sanitary measures (Hunt, 2013, p. 155; UN Development Programme, 2016). The volatility of changes in the environment and the impact that they have on the economy and the livelihood contributed to an influx of migration towards Funafuti, which has created an unsustainable environment for the inhabitants of Tuvalu (Locke, 2009, p. 177; UN Development Programme, 2016; World Bank, 2020).
The percentage of arable land on the island is 60 %, a total of 18 km2 (World Bank, 2020), which is not enough to produce food to sustain the current population of Tuvalu. The increase in the population in the capital has also risen the demand for fish and has put the ecosystem under great stress (Mortreux & Barnett, 2009), thus raising the rates of malnutrition amongst the population living in the atoll of Funafuti (Barnett & McMichael, 2018; WHO, 2017). Poor nutrition is prominent only in the capital, which has impacted the life expectancy of the inhabitants of Funafuti (Hayashi et al., 2019). Surprisingly, the inhabitants of other islands have been able to maintain more traditional diets based on “taro root, fish, breadfruit, papaya and coconut” (Locke, 2009, p.
178), as a consequence, nutrition-related diseases in other islands are over 100 times lower per year than in Funafuti (World Bank, 2020).
The water scarcity problem is especially prominent in Tuvalu. The islands do not have major potable water sources such as streams or rivers; the population relies on tanks that collect rain as their main source of potable water. Those water tanks are mainly located in Funafuti and are used to provide to inhabitants of the capital (Hunt, 2013, p. 154; UN Development Programme, 2016;
WHO, 2017). Water scarcity and rising sea levels have had an irreversible impact on agriculture.
The agricultural tradition is mainly centered on the outer islands, where the issue of the increase of sea levels has led to salinization of the soil (Government of Tuvalu, 2011; WHO, 2017; Zambrano et al., 2019). The poor quality of the soil, tied to the difficult access to a sufficient quantity of potable water to sustain the crops, hinders the primary sector by decreasing the harvests. With the decrease in the fruits and vegetables harvested – and the income tied to the sale of products – some families cannot gain their livelihood anymore within the agricultural sector, forcing them to move to an urbanized area (Lusama, 2011; WHO, 2017).
The strategy to adapt to the adverse consequences of environmental degradation has resulted in a series of policy responses. Tuvalu is a member of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS),20 which seeks to unify the Small Islands Developing states to create international policies to address the environmental impact and its inequitable distribution (AOSIS, 2021). However, the Government of Tuvalu has targeted some neighboring countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, to create agreements to facilitate the displacement of a quota of qualified workers from Tuvalu (Government of New Zealand, 2019). In 2011, the National Climate Change Policy was created to make Tuvalu less vulnerable to climate change, focusing on the implementation of policies in response to climate change threats, and biodiversity loss, to “ensure a safe, resilien/t/
and prosperous future” (Government of Tuvalu, 2011, p. 9).
20 AOSIS is an intergovernmental organization established in 1990 by small island countries that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change and environmental degradation. The AOSIS sought to consolidate the voices of small island developing states to address global warming, climate change, sustainable development, and ocean conservation (AOSIS, 2021). As of 2021, there are 39 member states and five observers.
3.2 Analysis of the shared traits in both case studies: the key to consolidation and