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Planning to sink: What happens if Kiribati drowns?

BY Molly Ward  July 27, 2014 at 12:37 PM EST
The Australian Tidal Center estimates that the Pacific island nation of Kiribati sinks further into the ocean 3.7 millimeters every year.

National Tidal Centre of Australia estimates that the Pacific island nation of Kiribati sinks further into the ocean 3.7 millimeters every year. Credit: Lisa Overton/NewsHour Weekend

Venice isn’t the only piece of land sinking today.

The nation of Kiribati, made up of 33 tiny islands far out in the Pacific Ocean, is getting smaller as rising sea levels continue to swallow the land by an average of 3.7 millimeters a year, according to the National Tidal Centre of Australia.

“Never in history has a state disappeared because of a physical problem,” said Michael Gerrard, Director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.


To deal with the country’s uncertain future, Kiribati President Anote Tong announced in June the purchase of nearly 6,000 acres of land on a Fijian island 1,240 miles away to potentially serve as a refuge for citizens who are forced to relocate as their homes eventually go under.

But if a nation drowns, is it still a nation?

Gerrard said a country must meet four standards to be recognized as a state: Land, population, government and recognition from other countries.

“If you have everything but land – if you have a population that is displaced – whether that allows you to be a state is a novel question,” Gerrard said. “It would really be up to the United Nations whether they still wanted to recognize the entity as a state.”

The future of Kiribati’s nationhood may very well rely on Fiji, Gerrard said.

“If Fiji were to cede the land and give it up and say it’s no longer within their jurisdiction, then it became the new Kiribati, then it would probably work,” Gerrard said.

Kiribati has just over 100,000 residents. The island nation’s highest point of elevation is only 81 meters above sea level, making it highly vulnerable to ocean changes. 

And as sea levels rise, citizens of Kiribati will need a new place to call home.

In neighboring New Zealand, 75 people from Kiribati are allowed to relocate every year if they meet certain visa requirements.

But in 2013, a New Zealand court ruled against a man from Kiribati who sought refugee status because of the effects of climate change on his home.

“The problem is that the definition of refugee does not fit this situation,” Gerrard said. “There is also talk of creating a new classification of people — climate-displaced persons. But they wouldn’t be considered refugees under existing law.