Anote Tong: the leader whose country is being swallowed by the sea

President Anote Tong. Photo: Government of Kiribati

The problem of global climate change is perhaps the most dire challenge ever faced by humanity. Many world leaders have only the projections of a distant future to concern them, but for Anote Tong, President of the island republic Kiribati and the over ninety thousand citizens of his country, rising sea levels are already a reality.

Speaking from the capital, Tarawa, the President sat down with the Leafy North in 2011 to discus the crisis facing his people.

How climate change is effecting the sea levels around Kiribati?

President Tong: We don’t see sea level rise, but we see the effect of what we believe is rising tide. We’re certainly having a lot of impact in the shoreline over the last few years and more recently. So what is happening is that some villages have had to been relocated, some homes have been lost, some infrastructure been destroyed and food crops been effected, things like that .

How are the fresh water lands being threatened by salt water contamination?

PT: On the occasions when the salt water comes over the island it contaminates the fresh water land. So that is damaging. Some times the water breaks through to some of the top areas, where food crops are cultivated and they they damage that. They also tend to effect the fresh water land from which we draw our drinking water.

Are there any means of purifying the water?

PT: No. We don’t have that. Now what means are available? Desalination, fine, but this is extremely expensive so if we have to we will use it, but only as a last resort. So if these things happen in combination with long periods of dry weather, with some islands, we’ll have to deliver water. We’ve got desalination plans but not desalination plants. I’m sure the technology is there but in the end it is a matter of resource availability. That is too expensive for us to do that. Quite often in the more effected areas people do drink highly brackish water.

How are the I-Kiribati being educated about what is happening?

PT: There is a normal awareness program. We have not gone into the details of educating people of the detail of “what is climate change” and all that.

There is such an awareness program to tell them to be more careful, what to do, what not to do, and particularly in terms of buildings close to the shorelines.

The long term effects people are aware. Again it is a question of time conception. People don’t always think in very long terms. They think about tomorrow, maybe next week. But certainly not in twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years time. I have no doubt that the reality of the situation is beginning to sink in and people are beginning to appreciate that this is a serious issue, Of course not so much for this generation but certainly in the future generation.

Are there plans for relocation?

PT: The way I’ve explained relocation is part of our very comprehensive adaptation program. What this involves is building resilience and building sea walls to deal with immediate requirements.

Maybe defining infrastructure for the future that would be more climate resistant and if worst comes to worst and we do start considering relocation then what we must do is start educating our people to prepare them for that possible eventuality and that is what we mean by our relocation program.

So far no country has been yet willing to offer resettlement to our people. The strategy we want to advocate is to train our people to be marketable and be qualified for the distinguishing migration programs. Hopefully we can prepare them to migrate on merit rather than as refugees.

I think it is important if any resettlement does occur it has got to be done on merit and with dignity.

What are the industries support Kiribati and how is the current crisis effecting them?

PT: They have been effected in the same way other infrastructure has been effected. To truly understand the problem one has to understand the situation we are in. Kiribati is on average about two meters above sea level and I think it is more the case during the very high tides it is about a meter above sea level. So if ever the high tides were to coincide with any strong winds we would have a problem in any case.

Any marginal increase in sea level will impact all aspects of life in Kiribati. Development, industry, just trying to live on a day to day basis and so far it is effecting industry as much as any other aspect of life in Kiribati.

It’s not something that is happening all of a sudden. I think it this has to be understood. It is a gradual process that is becoming more worrying as time goes on.

How do you respond to those that deny that climate change is a reality as a citizen of Kiribati?

Well I must admit that in my initial statement I was extremely frustrated, quite angry and extremely depressed because I think we have got to look around and see more than ourselves only.

I can under stand such a feeling is maybe a product of seeing things from only your own perspective and I think not every country is the same as North America.

We don’t all have mountains and I posed a challenge during the recent Cancun meetings in Mexico that if people believe there is no problem why don’t you come here and we come and live in your place and keep on doing the things we believe are happening.

I believe then our perspectives switch. We need people to come here and understand what it is we are trying to tell the international community.

I think it is somewhat terribly selfish to believe that what you have is what everyone else has.

Do you feel the global community made any substantial changes during the Cancun Climate Conference to benefit the planet and will any of that affect the nation of Kiribati?

PT: I attended both Copenhagen and the Cancun meetings and if I was to compare the outcome of the two different meetings I would say with absolute certainty that Cancun was quite a lot more successful.

This is a difficult process. It is a very complicated issue and the process of trying to get an agreement from all sorts of countries is not an easy thing. Begin with very different perspectives, different interests and different ideas of what is your problem and how urgent it is. So I think what was achieved in Cancun, at least, was progress from what happened in Copenhagen.

Even the Copenhagen accord itself, as one of the most vulnerable countries we disagreed that it was effective at dealing with our problems but there was agreement, even if it is not legally binding, and that is progress. The bottom line from which we must move on is that Cancun was progress from Copenhagen.

I hope we will continue to make progress on this incredibly complicated issue.

For us in the most vulnerable countries what I believe is important is that there are very significant issues, but they are also significant issues that are urgent. The issues for the most vulnerable issues is one of urgency . That is the point I was communicating in Cancun and I hope it was communicated exactly as it was. Translating that understanding to action I believe is the next challenge.


Are there any actions being taken by the nations of the world to assist Kiribati?

PT: We can ask the international community to do certain things but I think we also have a part to play. We have to be able to define what it is that we need the international community to assist us with.

I hope we can work together with the international community, different organs of the United Nations and those countries, particularly the ones that are commented to making a difference.

What actions does the world need to take to combat the effects of climate change, what immediate actions?

I think in very broad terms the international community, which could never tackle climate change without making sacrifice, there is no absolute win-win. I hope there is such a win-win scenario, but I think at this time there has to be some sacrifice.

[This] can’t be made without substantially reversing the current trends, but I believe there are countries with standards of living that are usually high that can survive with a lot less.

I think there has to be a greater consciousness that we share one resource and that the more one takes the less the other gets. I think that is exactly what you have in terms of climate change.

More countries, more people are getting the product at a huge cost to the planet. Others are losing and all countries loose. The question was can we reverse it? I hope we can. The scientific scenarios being projected so far do not give us a lot of hope particularly for the most vulnerable countries.

What do you believe Kiribati will look like in fifty years?

That is a question that I really have nightmares about. What will happen? Will we loose our home? What will happen to our people? Will they be relocated somewhere else? What will happen to the culture? What will happen to the sovereign nation of Kiribati, together with other similar countries?

If there are issues, there are legal issues, international legal issues, there are moral issues. I think the moral issue is possibly the biggest challenge to humanity at this point, in fact.

I think the real challenge for the international community, for humanity itself is knowing that these things are likely to happen are we willing to allow them to happen or are we willing to do something about it. If the crisis will not happen to us personally will we continue to do the damage regardless of the effects on others? But I think that is the deepest moral question that has got to be answered, answered by the international community.

I’m sure as individuals we have our own answers. I think when it comes to either something we’re not directly affected by or ignorant, maybe deliberately so.

I don’t know, but I hope there is hope for humanity.



President Tong finished his last term in 2015. This interview appeared originally on


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