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Friday, February 15, 2013

Australia gives foreign aid to Kiribati to combat climate change as new coal mines approved

At the start of this week Australia's Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced that Australia would fund repairs to 40 kilometres of main road in South Tarawa, Kiribati. The road is heavily damaged and undermined by rising sea levels and coastal erosion from climate change. The irony is that at the same time Bob Carr's colleague, Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke was approving 3 major fossil fuel developments that will exacerbate climate change.

"Kiribati is at the front line of climate change," Senator Carr said. "Its highest point is now just three metres above sea level. Unless action is taken, Kiribati will be uninhabitable by 2030 as a result of coastal erosion, sea level rise and saltwater intrusion into drinking water."

To Kiribati Australia's aid money is an important contribution to a small island state facing obliteration due to rising seas in the next 50 years. The highest point on Kiribati is just 3 metres above sea level, and much of the land is only one to two metres high. Rising seas and storm surges are spoiling land for agriculture, washing away houses, undermining roads and producing salt water incursion into fresh drinking water wells.

Kiribati is unlikely to survive the impacts of climate change this century, but adaptation can be made to increase resilience. "This project will provide more than 40 per cent of the population with better access to health clinics, schools and markets. Coastal roads will be rehabilitated to withstand rising sea levels and storm surges caused by climate change." said Senator Carr.

Read The Global Mail story from April 2013: Kiribati: A nation going under

Watch a recent audio report by ABC Pacific correspondent Sean Dorney on Australian Network News Youtube. Sean Dorney describes the roads: "We travelled over them today and they are in absolutely shocking state. We travelled at a snails pace along the road because there has been torrential downpours of rain in the last 24 hours and the roads are covered with water. When you go across the causeways you can see the sea, the waves are lapping against the causeways between these islands...." described Sean Dorney.

The funding by Australia would be delivered over three years (2013-2015) in partnership with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. "Senator Carr said that a further $26 million is now committed to the second phase of the Kiribas education improvement program from 2013-2015." reported Sean Dorney.

Other aid programs highlighted by Senator Carr include repairing water mains, "We'll also support the Kiribati Adaptation Program to replace 11 kilometres of damaged water mains and increase access to safe drinking water." he said.

Kiribati is a nation of just over 100,000 people straddling the equator in the Pacific composed 32 low-lying coral atolls. Several villages have already had to move due to inundation from rising seas and the people relocated. The President foresees a time when the whole population will need to move.

Environment Minister announces approval to 3 major fossil fuel projects

But back in Australia Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke announced the approved of 3 large fossil fuel projects in New South Wales: the Whitehaven Maules Creek Coal mine, the four fold expansion of the Idemitsu Boggabri coal mine, and an AGL Energy coal seam gas field near Gloucester. The carbon emissions output of these 3 large projects is equivalent to 8 per cent of Australia's emissions. These emissions will exacerbate global warming and lead to greater sea level rise and other climate change impacts.

Something is deeply wrong when one arm of Government is ameliorating the impacts of climate change through foreign aid while the Federal Environment Minister (what irony) approves major fossil fuel projects with both local and global environmental consequences.

Greenpeace highlighted in a January 2013 report by environmental consultants Ecosys - Point of No Return - that 14 global 'carbon bomb' projects which would increase global carbon emissions by 20% and lock the planet in to worst case business as usual climate change scenarios of 4 to 6 degrees centigrade of global warming this century.

For Kiribati Australia's coal development is a lingering death sentence for their country.

Climate impacts on Kiribati

Linda Uan, a Kiribati woman outlined some of the climate impacts on Kiribati in an opinion-editorial article in the Sydney Morning Herald on February 12 - Vanishing homeland leaves people with nowhere to go:

    "What we experience are more frequent storms which attack our coastal defences and erode our precious land and crops. Whole communities have had to be relocated. Changing climate patterns have also brought extensive periods of drought, which threaten our scarce fresh water supply."

    "The fragile water lenses beneath each of our islands are very vulnerable to salt water intrusion. This happens when our coasts are eroded by storms, when rising sea levels intrude from beneath and when drought causes shrinkage of the lenses. On top of this we now have problems with overpopulation on South Tarawa and human-induced pollution of our water resource."

    "Without fresh water, there can be no life. This, along with sea level rise, is the major threat to our existence."

Kiribati President President Anote Tong has recently confirmed to Radio Australia that it intends to buy six thousand acres on Fiji's second largest island, Vanua Levu to plant food crops to guarantee food security due to climate change impacts. The land is owned by a church group. The plan to buy land in Fiji was approved by the Kiribati Cabinet in March 2012. Although it could settle much of Kiribati population, it is not presently seen as a place for resettlement, but to enhance long term food security.

Kiribati are negotiating possible countries to settle their people as their coral atolls become uninhabitable. Adaptation measures such as building sea walls and planting mangroves can only go so far in holding back the surging waves.

In September 2012 the President of Kiribati said East Timor had offered the people of Kiribati refuge if climate change and rising sea levels forces them to abandon their homes and islands. President Anote Tong told ABC radio program Pacific Beat "It's a last resort," Mr Tong said, "It's not something that we would wish to see happen. But given the scenarios being put forward we are getting ourselves prepared for that possibility."

"We've been [applying] a strategy of up-skilling our people so that they can migrate at any time on merit as skilled people to integrate into their new communities... with dignity." he said. Indeed, education and providing skills for people will prove important for any migration scenarios.

This video from Conservation International features President Anote Tong of Kiribati talking about human adaptation to climate change for Kiribati. "If nothing is done, we will no longer exist" said Anote Tong. Watch the video on Youtube

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon visited Kiribati in September 2011 to see for himself the climate impact and future faced by the people of Kiribati. Aus Aid published this video of the visit in January 2013. Watch it on Youtube:


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