Cyclones seldom hit Kiribati, but as Michael Field reports from central Pacific atoll nation is facing a different kind of disaster – squalid and soul destroying all the same.
Ten premature babies lie sleeping in shared incubators in a small room in the main hospital in Kiribati.
“None of them are likely to survive,” director of public health Dr Revite Kirition says.
Even if they had of been admitted, there were no beds for new patients anyway.
The hospital shares a strip of land called South Tarawa, never more than a kilometre wide and about 20 kilometres long, with 50,000 people.
With 2,558 people per square kilometre – New Zealand runs to 15.9 – is one of the most crowded places in the Pacific.
It is desperately poor.
“Call me naïve, but I’ve travel the world and been to Africa and India, but I’ve never seen such a desperate, squalid place,” Labour MP Shane Jones says.
Kiribati President Anote Tong has no argument with that analysis; just that it is worse.
On South Tarawa the smell of sewage is pervasive, there is no clean water and it has the worst under-five child mortality rates in the Pacific.
“It is very very urgent that we take action,” Tong says.
Jones was part of a delegation of MPs who accompanied Foreign Minister Murray McCully to Kiribati who is making the Micronesian republic his personal cause.
One obvious solution is Kiribati’s Christmas Atoll – 3400 kilometres to the east of Tarawa - but the unstated fear is that the exploding Kiribati population will ruin one of the world’s great marine and bird atolls, just as they have to their current atoll.
Kiribati is made up of 33 atolls and one high island (Banaba) spread over 3.55 million square hectares of exclusive economic zone. It has just 811 square kilometres of fragile land; 70 per cent of it is Christmas or Kiritimati Atoll (and not to be confused with Australia’s Christmas Indian Ocean island).
Half of Kiribati’s 100,000 people live on South Tarawa, just 7000 on Christmas which has a vast and empty feel to it.
Christmas – with towns, relics of the 1950s British nuclear tests, named London, Paris and Poland - is pristine and beautiful against the nightmare of Tarawa.
Transmigration is the answer and New Zealand wants to help, but those on Christmas do not want the Tarawa people, and Tong can neither force people to go or stop them if they decide to go in too greater numbers.
“Christmas Island is quite an attractive centre for people because there is a lot of fish,” he says.
“It is seen as a land of opportunity. The problem is getting too many people there and shifting the problem here to there when we are not ready for it.”
Tonga, who was educated at the London School of Economics, says Tarawa’s problems are not just space.
“Some of the emerging social issues that are coming out are becoming quite a threat to our future stability.”
He says “untraditional practices” are undermining the politics and traditions.
“As new norms come into place and new attitudes will begin to form.”
Domestic violence and alcoholism has become an extreme new norm on Tarawa and all the key health statistics paint disaster.
“It is getting confused.”
Kiribati’s constitution means people cannot be forced back to their home islands.
“The problems are increasing rather than decreasing, so it has got to be addressed.”
Then there is global climate change and sea level rise.
Paul Kench of the University of Auckland recently claimed in a widely publicised paper that places like Kiribati were not sinking but, by comparing photos over decades, were increasing in area.
Tong was outraged by the report.
“Sand is always shifting, but whether it is growing or not, it is not getting any higher. It is about height above sea level, not width.”
Kench’s report had removed the sense of threat that Pacific people felt.
“That is not the case, the threat remains,” Tong says.
New Zealand is putting in money to move people from the two worst places on Tarawa – Bairiki and Betio – to a new housing area at the eastern end, by the airport, Temaiku.
Other money is going into the remarkable Christmas Atoll which the delegation visited.
The sole surviving runway, Cassidy, fell into disrepair several years ago but is now working again.
The Port of London used to be a cruise ship destination but the channel has sanded up. New Zealand will help repair it.
Other than hectare after hectare of unused land, Christmas is a tourism paradise with vast numbers of nesting sea birds, surfing and game fishing.
The sense of squalid stench on Tarawa is overwhelming.
At the hospital, one wonders what would happen if an antibiotic resistant superbug hit.
Dr Kirition had the answer; “nothing much different, we don’t have antibiotics in the first place.”
Help has recently arrived in the form of 20 Cuban doctors.
In Cold War days this would have led to a fear of a Communist take-over.
An impact is being felt in the large maneaba or meeting halls on South Tawara; Hispanic dancing has become all the rage.
Fairfax Media’s Michael Field travelled to Kiribati with the government’s Pacific Mission. Kiribati declared him an undesirable migrant in 1999 for reporting on the extreme environmental conditions. On his latest trip President Tong announced that Field had been “unbanned” and welcomed him as “joining us for the first time in quite some time.”
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