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Kiribati: Pushing Against the Tide

October 26, 2011

Kiribati, a nation in the Pacific Ocean formed by 32 low lying coral islands scattered over an area that's roughly the size of India, is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change and sea level rise.

World Bank Group

  • Kiribati’s biophysical and socio-economic conditions make the nation one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change and sea level rise.
  • Climate change adaptation measures are vital to build resilience for Kiribati’s future—and for other threatened island communities across the world.
  • The World Bank has launched the third phase of the Kiribati Adaptation Program, focusing on fresh water supply and coastal protection.

Comprised of 32 small low lying coral islands, Kiribati is one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change and sea level rise. Due to its narrow islands, most of them less than two kilometers wide, the entire population and most infrastructure are concentrated along the coast, making them directly exposed to climatic threats.

While Kiribati is a small nation of 100,000, many of the challenges posed by climate change are shared across the globe by 42 other countries that constitute the Alliance of Small Island States, ranging from the Pacific and the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean, among others. All of these communities, which constitute five percent of the world’s population, face similar threats from climate change.

The people of Kiribati have already started losing their homes and resources critical to their livelihoods such as coral reefs and fisheries. Due to an increase in the frequency of storms and tropical cyclones, intrusion of salt water and sea level rise are increasing. Paired with lack of rain and higher temperatures, all these factors are depleting freshwater supplies, which directly impact human wellbeing and agricultural productivity. At times, fresh water supplies are rationed, sometimes severely. With no climate change adaptation efforts, most of the land on the major islands could become inundated by 2050.

Kiribati also has considerable socio-economic vulnerability. The islands are increasingly vulnerable due to high population concentrations along the coast, accelerated coastal development, and environmental degradation. Infant mortality rates due to diarrheal diseases in Kiribati are the highest in the Pacific.

Under such conditions, steps to build resilience are vital to protect homes, security, culture and well-being of the people of Kiribati. In 2007, the Kiribati government adopted The National Adaptation Program of Action. It identifies salt water intrusion and coastal zone inundation as the most relevant climate related hazards for the nation. Water resources adaptation, well improvement, and coastal zone management and resilience enhancement for adaptation were identified as priority adaptation projects.

Kiribati and the other threatened island states “have to take an all-of-island approach, from ridge to reef”, says Kamta Kumari Rigaud, Lead Adaptation Specialist in the Environment Department of the World Bank.

Third Phase of the Kiribati Adaptation Program

In September 2011, the World Bank launched the third phase of the Kiribati Adaptation Program. It aims to improve the resilience of Kiribati to impacts of climate change on freshwater supply and coastal infrastructure. The project will achieve this by strengthening the government’s capacity and improving the management and governance of water resources and infrastructure.

The program’s third phase builds on the achievements from previous phases. Technical assistance to increase awareness was undertaken during the first phase in 2003-2006. The second phase of the program, implemented in 2006-2011, developed pilot projects to enhance the government’s capacity to design and implement adaptation measures that respond to the most pressing climate-related and natural hazard issues facing the country. These pilot projects included mangrove planting, construction of seawalls, and establishing a coastal management guideline.

“The incremental steps that Kiribati has taken through its adaptation program are very instructive for all countries facing similar threats”, says Rigaud.