(Reuters) – The ocean laps against a protective seawall outside the maternity ward at Kiribati’s Nawerewere Hospital, marshalling itself for another assault with the next king tide.
Inside, a basic clinic is crowded with young mothers and newborn babies, the latest additions to a population boom that has risen as relentlessly as the sea in a deeply Christian outpost where family planning is still viewed with skepticism.
It is a boom that threatens to overwhelm the tiny atoll of South Tarawa as quickly as the rising seas. Some 50,000 people, about half of Kiribati’s total population, are already crammed onto a sand and coral strip measuring 16 sq km (6 sq miles).
“Climate change is a definite long-term threat to Kiribati, there’s no doubt whatsoever about that,” says Simon Donner, a climate scientist at the University of British Columbia who has been visiting South Tarawa since 2005.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s the biggest problem right now … Any first-time visitor to Tarawa is not struck by the impacts of sea level rise, they’re struck by how crowded it is.”
Low-lying South Pacific island nations such as Kiribati (pronounced Kee-ree-bahs) and Tuvalu, about halfway between northeast Australia and Hawaii, have long been the cause célèbre for climate change and rising sea levels.
Straddling the equator and spread over 3.5 million sq km (2 million sq miles) of otherwise empty ocean, Kiribati’s 32 atolls and one raised coral island have an average height above sea level of just two meters (6-1/2 feet).
Studies show surrounding sea levels rising at about 2.9 mm a year, well above the global average of 1 – 2 mm a year.
Kiribati President Anote Tong has grimly predicted his country will likely become uninhabitable in 30-60 years because of inundation and contamination of its fresh water supplies.
OVERCROWDING “A MENACE”
While climate change poses a serious longer-term threat, many people, including Tong, recognize that breakneck population growth is a more immediate problem. South Tarawa’ population density of more than 3,000 per sq km is comparable to Los Angeles or parts of London – without the high rises.
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