National Geographic : 2015 Nov
128 national geographic • november 2015 increase over the coming decades, although downpours are likely to be more extreme, causing flooding. As underground freshwater reserves are compromised by rising seas—and in Tarawa’s case, heavy population pressure—harvesting rainwater from roofs may offer an alternative. On Abaiang foreign aid has provided some com munities with simple systems that catch, filter, treat, and store rainfall. As long as you have freshwater, you can cope with other changes— at least for a while. How long, no one knows. The tide turned and slid shoreward like a onshore by storms—to keep their heads above water. They are like construction sites: If the materials run out, building will cease. A dead reef cannot sustain the islands it has built. What kind of world is this, where the sea con sumes its own creation? To many IKiribati it seems deeply unfair that their country’s climate troubles are not of its own making. Since the 1980s Pacific leaders have scolded, cajoled, pleaded with, and tried to shame the major carbonpolluting countries over climate change. The islands are ants and the industrialized nations are elephants, declared Teburoro Tito, a former Kiribati president, speaking of the infinitesimal contribution his country has made to the planet’s carbon burden. There is an aspect to the rich world’s dis regard that is especially hard for IKiribati to stomach. They are particular about respecting boundaries. Traditionally, you never took coco nuts from a tree that wasn’t yours. You wouldn’t even take dead breadfruit leaves to light a fire without asking. Reefs had boundaries too. Peo ple knew where they were entitled to harvest. Those protocols are still observed today. When I joined fishermen traveling from Tarawa to Abaiang, on a day so calm the clouds had blue green bellies from the reflection of the sea, the skipper stopped the outboard motor at a certain reef and one of the crew threw handrolled pan danus cigarettes into the sea as offerings and a mark of respect for the owners of the territory we were crossing. When you travel to another island for the first time, before you do anything else, you announce yourself to the place by visiting a sacred site. You make a gift of cigarettes or a few coins, and the caretaker picks up damp sand and pats it on your cheeks and ties a tendril of green vine around your head. After performing this ritual on Abaiang, the caretaker of the shrine told me, “You now belong to this island.” What do the wealthy countries know of respecting boundaries? I picture a cloud of greenhouse gases drifting toward Tarawa from over the horizon, like radioactivity from the nuclear weapons exploded in Kiribati’s Line Islands after the Second World War. It doesn’t seem so very different: nuclear fallout in the 20th century, climate fallout in the 21st. The feeling of injustice is widespread on the sheet of green glass, pushing the harvesters ahead of it. Tides are an axis of Kiribati life. So are the movements of sun, moon, and stars and the directions of wind and swell. In times past, if you understood these axes, you could calcu late when to plant crops, when to fish, when to set sail in hundredfoot outrigger canoes called baurua. Such was the algebra of the Pacific. Fishermen knew the bait each fish preferred, whether to catch it in the day or night, and the best tactic for taking it: hook, noose, or net. But the certainties of that world are breaking down. Once reliable fishing places now yield empty lines and nets. The warming ocean is thought to be driving some fish to cooler waters. Coral reefs are suffering as well—and worse is yet to come. As the sea grows warmer and more acidic throughout this century, reef growth is predicted to slow and even stop. Coral bleaching—when stressed corals expel the sym biotic algae that give them color and nutrients— used to happen every ten years or so. But it’s becoming more frequent and eventually could happen yearly, threatening coral survival and dimming the reefs’ living rainbow to a shadow. Where reefs go, islands will follow. Atoll islands rely on deposits of sediment from corals and other marine organisms—often dumped How can they not feel afraid when the world keeps telling them that low-lying island countries like theirs will soon be underwater?