Sea-level rise creates need for a bold vision . . .
Kiribati’s president, Taneti Maamau, told The Guardian that he is planning to physically elevate some of the South Pacific country’s 33 islands to combat the threat of sea-level rise. Kiribati’s 11,000 inhabitants are below the global average in greenhouse gas emissions – Canadians emit 16 times more CO2 into the atmosphere on a per capita basis – but are among the most vulnerable to climate change, especially rising sea levels. The 20-year plan includes dredging, which involves excavating sea sand for land reclamation purposes. Among the international experts enlisted for the project is Dr. Paul Kench from Vancouver-based Simon Fraser University, an expert in how atolls like those in the South Pacific respond to sea-level changes.
China connection causing concern . . .
The project partner that is raising eyebrows is China. On the one hand, China’s involvement makes sense, as it has the expertise and experience to carry out such a technically complex engineering project, as evident from its controversial dredging and island-building in the South China Sea. On the other hand, China’s involvement has prompted President Maamau to issue assurances that Beijing will not be allowed to build dual-use facilities there. Of particular concern is Christmas Island, located 2,000 km south of the headquarters of the U.S. military’s Pacific Fleet in Hawaii. Kiribati’s Treaty of Tarawa with the U.S. allows the latter to maintain military bases on some of the country’s islands and requires that Kiribati consult with Washington before allowing other countries to build military facilities.
Elections have consequences . . .
Maamau’s announcement comes just seven weeks after he was re-elected with nearly 60 per cent of the vote. Among the most salient campaign issues was his decision in September 2019 to switch his country’s diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China – a decision that raised alarms in countries like the U.S. and Australia, which have grown suspicious of Beijing’s intentions in this vitally strategic area of the world. The stakes of the island-raising plan will thus have implications for his political future, but far larger implications for the country’s long-term habitability.