After the tiny nation of Kiribati helped lay the bedrock of New Zealand's economy, it faces destruction amidst rising seas. But as its people try to leave, we're turning thousands away.

It was an otherwise unremarkable afternoon in Tarawa, a thin strip of coral in the wide, blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean, part way between Fiji and Hawaii. The sky was blue, the breeze was gentle, and the sea was furious.

Locals described the wave as a tsunami, but tidal records later proved them wrong. It was a normal wave on a particularly strong king tide, just enough to leap over one of the atoll's highest seawalls and drown part of the island's only hospital.

The water shoved beds against the walls. Women who had just given birth evacuated while clutching their newborns to their chests, wading through knee-deep saltwater, some still attached to IVs.

Flooding at the maternity ward of Betio hospital. PHOTO: CLIMATE.GOV.KI

Further up the atoll, villagers trudged through water up to their waists. Their seawalls, rebuilt over and over, had been crushed.

In her lonely and exposed house on the shore, Koin Akoi recalls the day the wave hit.

"The water came in and destroyed all our trees. We tried to build the seawall again, but still it's broken," she said.

"It was big. It came with the wind and destroyed that side of the island. We were surrounded."

In the weeks afterwards, she watched the coconuts drop from the trees and the leaves rust yellow, a lush forest decaying into a field of darkened stumps which remain like tombstones on the low tide.

An i-Kiribati boy by the Tekeraoi, a shipwreck which crashed into the Betio port. PHOTO: CHARLIE MITCHELL\/STUFF

An i-Kiribati boy by the Tekeraoi, a shipwreck which crashed into the Betio port. 

When the wave passed through the port at Betio, a shipwreck was summoned from its grave in the reef and thrown towards land, crashing into the port with a thud, where it remains permanently lodged.

The ship was called the Tekeraoi, a word which loosely translates to "good luck" - an ironic warning for the many dangers yet to come.


What used to be a forest behind a school was swept away by a flood. PHOTO: ETHAN DONNELL/UNICEF

One way to interpret the mood of Kiribati (pronounced ‘Keer-uh-bas’), a tiny country straddling both sides of the equator in the central Pacific Ocean, is to listen to its state-run radio station.

The most popular songs play several times a day for months on end, and observers have noticed they uncannily reflect the mood of the nation and its people, known as the i-Kiribati (pronounced ‘E-Keer-uh-bas’: ‘ti’ is used to represent the ‘s’ sound in Gilbertese, which can be confusing - Christmas, for example, is spelled ‘Kiritimati’).

Recently, the song of choice has been an upbeat, promotional track created by a local bus company, comparing its vehicles – and, subtextually, the i-Kiribati people – to a frigate bird, a local icon known for its elegance and unusual ability to migrate long distances.



A few years ago, it was another song that captured the airwaves. It had won a Government-funded competition for the best original song about climate change, and it was hugely popular. Its ominous chorus went: "The angry sea will kill us all".

Another popular song, a ballad sung in falsetto by an i-Kiribati boy band, has a chorus which goes: "We are small / We are vulnerable / We are the frontline of climate change / So please save us and our island."

They're all suitable backing tracks for a nation deeply imprinted with the effects of climate change, each reflecting one of the country’s varying emotional states: acceptance, anger, grief.

Ponds of polluted water near the shore on South Tarawa.

The 32 atolls of Kiribati are wisp-like shards of coral, dotted on both sides of the equator, tiny on their own but together covering an area as vast as the United States. They are all about 2-3 metres above sea-level and flat like pancakes; there is no higher ground to run to.

For a long time, Kiribati was one of the world's forgotten nations. It is adrift and alone in the ocean; its residents rarely left, and visitors rarely arrived.

Tarawa, Kiribati’s most populated atoll, from above. PHOTO: DAVID GRAY\/REUTERS

Tarawa, Kiribati’s most populated atoll, from above. 

But it has suddenly come to an international prominence. Kiribati is among the first nations to run the climate change gauntlet, serving as a bellwether for the rising seas, the droughts, the storms, and all the other cruelties that follow.

The irony is that Kiribati's greenhouse gas emissions are the third lowest in the world. New Zealanders, per capita, emit 25 times more, Americans 45 times more.

The small, isolated country is brutally under-equipped to deal with a problem caused primarily by nations thousands of times larger, far across the sea that threatens to slowly consume it.

An i-Kiribati in New Zealand once described her country as "the vulnerable of the vulnerables"; an already struggling nation, unfairly targeted by one of the most challenging problems the modern world has dealt with.


Damage caused by phosphate mining on Nauru, near Banaba. PHOTO: RODNEY JOYCE/REUTERS

About a century before rising seas started lapping on the shores of remote Pacific islands, a New Zealander tripped over a doorstop and had a revelation.

Albert Ellis was born in Queensland, but moved to New Zealand with his family as a teenager. His father, a farmer in the Waikato, was involved in a company that mined phosphate, an increasingly valuable resource for the burgeoning agriculture industry.

Ellis followed in his father’s footsteps, joining the same company as a prospector. He was at the company’s Sydney office when he tripped on a large stone, collected years earlier from Nauru, a small Pacific island, which was being used to prop open the door to the company’s laboratory.

He held the rough stone in his hands, marvelling at its weight. He was told it was petrified wood, but he suspected otherwise; He had it analysed and discovered it was rich in high-quality phosphate.

Ellis ventured towards Nauru in search of the phosphate riches hinted at within the doorstop. The problem was that Nauru was German territory; So Ellis explored the nearby islands, which he figured would have similar properties.

He found them in nearby Ocean Island, a raised atoll largely unknown to the western world that contained similar phosphate riches, dropped as guano by migrating birds.

Today, Banaba is part of Kiribati, the only one of its 33 islands significantly above sea-level, insured against sea level rise.

But very few people live on the island, which is shaped like a tear-drop: it has become an industrial rock in a vast blue ocean, littered with ancient machinery left to rust in the sea winds among the fallen pandanus trees.


Banaba Island.

It was mined so extensively that 90 per cent of the island’s surface was stripped bare, leaving it all but hollowed out. It is so pock-marked and desolate it resembles the surface of the moon and is roughly as uninhabitable.

When Ellis landed on the island in 1900, he assembled the Banabans and offered them a deal: he would pay them £50 a year (about $10,000 NZD today) for the exclusive right to mine the island for 999 years.

Neither side spoke the others’ language - Ellis assumed the Banaban who greeted him was the island’s king (he was not), and sought signatures from four other villagers, who each scrawled an x on a document they couldn’t understand - but the deal would later be upheld in court.

The Banabans were put to work mining their own island, while the company’s assurances that their crops would be left alone, their land would not be destroyed, and that they would be paid royalties, were broken.

After WWI, the island was taken over by the British Phosphate Commission an equal three-way partnership between the UK, Australian and New Zealand governments. New Zealand’s representative was Sir Albert Ellis - he had since been knighted for services to mining.

By 1950, hundreds of millions of tonnes of phosphate each year was leaving Banaba for farms in New Zealand and Australia, sold for half the market rate. Fertiliser derived from superphosphate proved so vital it underpinned New Zealand’s farming industry for decades, almost all of it from Banaba and nearby Nauru.

Meanwhile, Banaba had been invaded by Japanese soldiers during WWII, who had sought to take over the mines. They killed or enslaved hundreds of Banabans - most of the Europeans had been rescued - and destroyed their villages, adding to the existing destruction. The Banabans, their home destroyed, were relocated to Rabi, an island in Fiji, where they remain today.

The Banabans ultimately sued the governments that turned their island into a husk. After one of the longest court cases in British history, they were awarded £10m, which they used to rebuild their lives in Fiji.

An i-Kiribati man building a hut.PHOTO: CHARLIE MITCHELL\/STUFF

An i-Kiribati man building a hut.

On Rabi, the Banabans are treated as second-class citizens. A Banaban sought refugee status in New Zealand in 2012, citing the violence that would face him if he returned, but he was deported.

Banaba island is now under the jurisdiction of Kiribati and is the only part of the country now safe from the effects of climate change, another destructive force largely caused by powerful nations far across the ocean.


A student marching in a parade thanking New Zealand and UNICEF. PHOTO: CHARLIE MITCHELL/STUFF

For the 70 or so kids at a small primary school on Abaiang, one of Kiribati’s atolls, Thursday is a special day.

They come to school wearing black, to recognise the victims of domestic violence, which is a serious problem in Kiribati. When they discover foreigners have arrived, the children go home, put on their uniforms, and march in a parade, waving a large banner thanking New Zealand and UNICEF for the money which funds WASH, a programme encouraging hygiene to prevent sickness.


It's a glimpse of village life in rural Kiribati, one deeply affected by the impacts of rising seas which have crept into everyday life.

The children are taught about climate change, sitting on the floor of their thatched classrooms: the way it is fuelled by industrial nations far, far away, where they live vastly different lives.

When a high tide washes over the island, the villagers rush to rescue taro from their swamps.

"The leaves start going yellow, starting to die out," a village elder says through a translator. "So people rush and get the roots out before it's too late."

"During the high tides, people can't do much. Sometimes there's nothing they can do, just stand there and watch."

Children in a classroom at a school on Abaiang.PHOTO: CHARLIE MITCHELL\/STUFF

Children in a classroom at a school on Abaiang.

When the wave flooded the maternity ward on Tarawa, a similar chaos was underway on Abaiang.

A wave soared over the beach and hundreds of meters inland, stripping leaves from a forest and poisoning the taro pits with salt.

Teachers raced immediately to the school, which was in the water's path.

"We rushed to take the books from the office, all the teachers, and place them in the maneaba [meeting house]," said Rinan Angiraoi, a teacher.

"We were so frightened and surprised."

Freshwater wells, already in desperately short supply, were polluted. The remnants of the forest are still there, now a marsh dotted with the skeletons of trees.

A couple of years later, there's a bizarre sight at the end of the marsh. The beginnings of a seawall, hundreds of metres from the sea, serves as a last gasp effort to protect the community's taro pits from the waves that reach further and further inland, increasingly moreso as the sea continues to rise, seemingly in concert with the powerlessness of the villagers to stop it.

When a king tide washed away the forest behind the school, they built an impromptu wall with the village's rubbish.

"This is our rubbish area, and we tried to make a landfill to stop it," Rinan Angiraoi, the teacher, says.

"I think it has worked."

The need to battle the effects of climate change has started to overwhelm the other issues afflicting the i-Kiribati

Not long ago, the villagers built their first toilet. Until then they had been defecating on the beach, not far from where they swim. The atoll is so narrow their freshwater wells had become hydrologically connected to their self-dug toilets, meaning they were infecting their own drinking water.

"They just put the toilet down, and the water they drink from the well is mixed up with waste," said Tenamau Iotua, a local nurse.

"They do not keep their waste in a tank - that's why it mixes with water."

She sees around five people a day in the small village, primarily with waterborne illnesses that in most parts of the world would be easily prevented.

The clinic, like many buildings in Kiribati, had to be moved away from the coastline after it was damaged by waves. A local tells me there was an issue with funding: aid money to rebuild the clinic had been spent on building seawalls instead.

It's a choice regularly faced by the i-Kiribati. The need to build seawalls to protect against the immediate threat of sea-level rise can come at the expense of the long-standing social issues that come with poverty and isolation.

Tenamau Iotua, a nurse on Abaiang, outside her clinic. PHOTO: CHARLIE MITCHELL\/STUFF

Tenamau Iotua, a nurse on Abaiang, outside her clinic. 

Kiribati is one of the world's poorest countries, designated by the UN as a "least developed nation" and by the World Bank as a "fragile" state. It features in many of the same categories as Afghanistan and Haiti.

Data from the World Bank ranks Kiribati seventh in the world for aid dependency, between South Sudan and Somalia.

Its infant mortality rate is higher than it is in Bangladesh, and on par with Ethiopia. Children die of diarrhoea, dysentery and malnutrition, and thousands have been killed by third-world diseases such as tuberculosis in the last decade. Many people live without electricity and running water.

When the water recedes at low tide, mountains of rubbish are exposed on the reef bed. The coral reef has been abused for decades, primarily due to raw sewage discharges and bouts of coral bleaching. Broken shards of seawall litter the beaches, abandoned as new ones are built further inland which inevitably fail over and over again, rebuilt in a never-ending task that echoes the Greek myth of Sisyphus, doomed to repeat over and over again.



Parts of South Tarawa have among the highest population density in the world, exceeding that of cities like New York and Hong Kong. It's particularly incredible given very few buildings are multi-leveled. Parts of the atoll are only as wide as a rugby field, but the population is increasing at an extraordinary rate - according to moderate projections, 55 per cent of the atoll will be vulnerable to inundation or storm surges by 2050, a timeframe in which its population will increase by 72 per cent.

The i-Kiribati are crammed into places people wouldn't traditionally live. It's why some refuse to leave their damaged homes - there is nowhere else to go.

"If I left this part of the island, some people would want to destroy this place," Koin Akoi says, about her house surrounded by a broken, flooded forest.

"I don't want to lose this heritage".

Koin Akoi’s house in the distance, now surrounded by bare space, where a forest used to be.

It all occurs in a landscape that is strikingly beautiful, even considering the high bar set by its tropical Pacific neighbours.

South Tarawa arcs around a gentle coral reef, and when the tide recedes the i-Kiribati walk hundreds of metres towards the horizon combing the reef-bed for crayfish. They look as if they're walking on water, beneath sweeping technicolour sunsets which invent new shades of red every day.

There have been recent attempts to convert this natural asset into an income stream, primarily through tourism. But it's not easy.

Kiribati is among the world's least visited countries, according to UN data, receiving 6000 international visitors each year. On a global level, it only surpasses its tiny neighbour, Tuvalu, and means it's roughly as popular an international tourist destination as Lower Hutt.

Due to its poverty and reliance on international aid, economically fortifying the country against the effects of climate change is all but impossible.

The problem is urgent for Kiribati, perhaps moreso than anywhere else in the world.

Around 77 per cent of i-Kiribati accepted that migration would be the likely result of ongoing sea-level rise, according to a recent UN survey. Almost all of them - 95 per cent - had been victim to a natural hazard in the last decade.

The respondents were asked to rate various statements that echoed their thoughts about climate change. A common reply was "the angry sea will kill us all," the line from the popular song which tapped into the national sense of futility.

Many of the i-Kiribati have accepted migration may be necessary. Where do they go, when the sea rises?


A man washes in the lagoon at low tide. PHOTO: CHARLIE MITCHELL/STUFF

Every Sunday morning, Bishop Takanoi Tauteba puts on a clean white shirt, shines his glimmering black shoes and crosses the road to church.

He lives in Bikinebieu, a vulnerable town where the water bashes both sides of the narrow, paved road, the only one on the atoll. The church is protected by an impressive seawall, which has withstood the fury of the sea better than most - those that didn't lie in broken shards of cement littering the coastline.

In his dark, bunker-like office, insulated from the punishing heat that comes with life on the equator, Tauteba says he has repeatedly tried to leave the country with his family.

"It is one of the biggest issues now, climate change," he said.

"For myself, I'm worried about the future of my children."

Children posing for the camera.PHOTO: CHARLIE MITCHELL\/STUFF

Children posing for the camera.

Like a growing number of i-Kiribati, he has tried to move to the country's largest, wealthiest neighbour – New Zealand.

More than a thousand i-Kiribati apply to work here each year under the Pacific Access Scheme, started in 2002. It amounts to 1 per cent of the country's population, or 5 per cent of those with the economic means to migrate, eagerly waiting for their names to be drawn.

The scheme sets aside 75 spaces for i-Kiribati each year. It is dwarfed by the number of applicants: At its peak, nearly 2000 i-Kiribati applied to move here in one year, which has settled around 1500 for the last few years.

The scheme sets aside the same number for residents of Tuvalu, which is one tenth the size of Kiribati.

Despite huge interest, the 75 places for i-Kiribati have only been filled twice. The average number accepted is between 40 and 50 each year, and has gone as low as seven. It has made the ballot even harder: Since 2009, there has been 35 rejections for each acceptance.

For Tauteba, the ballot is an annual source of hope. But luck is not on his side.

"Every year we apply for the ballot. For five years we've tried this because we want to move, because of the climate."

To be accepted, an applicant must be aged between 18-45, have a job offer with an annual income higher than $32,000, meet health and good character requirements, and speak English.

A recent study by the World Bank commended New Zealand's system, but said it was nowhere near extensive enough.

A student at Sunrise Primary School on Abaiang. PHOTO: CHARLIE MITCHELL\/STUFF

A student at Sunrise Primary School on Abaiang. 

It went as far as recommending open labour migration between Kiribati and New Zealand, due to the extraordinary circumstances of climate change.

"The worsening impacts of climate change have provided a new moral imperative for providing open access," it said.

Professor Richard Bedford, who studies population geography and is president of the Royal Society of New Zealand, has studied migration in Kiribati since the 1960s. He has watched the pressures on the population grow.

Population growth in particular has been a major issue, which is now on a collision course with the worsening problems associated with climate change.

In the coming decades, the population on the already overpopulated Tarawa is expected to grow rapidly - it is projected to increase from 50,000 to upwards of 80,000 in 30 years.

“Already, people living there are building out into the lagoon and reclaiming land… This is happening at the same time storm surges are getting more violent with increased storms,” Bedford said.



He has lobbied successive New Zealand governments to do more to take in and integrate i-Kiribati families, which has fallen on deaf ears.

The 75 places set aside annually for i-Kiribati is clearly not enough - he has previously said it should be 10 times higher - but he said there was no appetite for changes to immigration policy within government.

“[They] have been very resistant to suggestions of anything other than temporary migration from those countries.

“They [i-Kiribati] need at least some sense of security that in the long run they won’t be left in an impossible situation. I suspect if you talk to politicians they’ll say, yes we understand that, but it’s for a future government to decide.

“I’m saying to them no, it’s not a future government that needs to decide - they need security now.”

Because the exploitation of Banaba laid the bedrock of New Zealand’s agricultural economy, there is an argument for reparations, in the form of accepting the i-Kiribati searching for new homes.

Bedford says, if nothing else, our efforts to take in the i-Kiribati were not good enough - we need to treat them like people, not like phosphate.

“It isn’t easy for the i-Kiribati here. I think we need a much more constructive and proactive programme in New Zealand reaching out to support these Pacific families that want to live here, that are balloted under our ballot,” Bedford said.

“We’ve got to get our head around dealing with flows of people as well as flows of resources, flows of money, flows of fish - how we actually work with our Pacific communities. We need to give a lot of thought to this now and not say this is for a future government to deal with.”

Bishop Tauteba is not alone - although he doesn't discuss climate change with his churchgoers, it's impossible to ignore when the waves crash against the seawall protecting the church, a backing track beneath talk of the gospel.

"We talk only the gospel, not climate change and stuff like that. But I don't think my ideas are different from the rest."


Pirate Taati, Abaiang’s education coordinator, on his motorbike. PHOTO: CHARLIE MITCHELL/STUFF

Pirate Taati fell in love with his wife when he saw her dance.

"Dancing means everything," he says.

"We convey a message through dancing. It shows who we are, it maintains our identity and our culture."


He lives on Abaiang, about an hour by boat from Tarawa, where he serves as the atoll's education coordinator.

He lives at Sunrise Primary School, which recently had to move many of its thatched buildings away from the sea. Erosion had progressively eaten away at land, to the point where it threatened to wash away the teachers' living quarters.

The atoll is so narrow that it's not unheard of for water to wash in from the sea, over the land and into the lagoon.

Taati gestures out to the sea, gently lapping onto a spectacular beach, where much of the school once was. A jagged concrete block remains of one of the buildings, now a bulging rubbish pile, home to an assortment of pigs.

"The land is eroded because of the effects of climate change," he says.

"Most of the houses have been moved inland because of erosion. It's been a problem, we need a lot of help.

"It's really hard here in Kiribati, most of the schools need money, that's my experience."

Pigs forage in a rubbish pile where houses used to be. PHOTO: CHARLIE MITCHELL\/STUFF

Pigs forage in a rubbish pile where houses used to be. 

He has six children, who he hopes will study overseas and find good jobs. But first, they must learn the ways of the culture: Every day, they learn to dance and to weave mats from the leaves of the banabas tree.

They have become vessels of the Kiribati culture, a way for it to survive should the country disperse. Learning the traditional ways has become an act of rebellion against the wider forces which risk ending their country entirely.

"That's why we need to teach our children our local skills - once we move to Australia or New Zealand, they need to move with their culture," he said.

"If we lose our culture we lose our identity, our dignity. We lose what we are. We don't want to go to Australia or New Zealand and forget about ourselves."


A child in a lagoon at sunset. PHOTO: CHARLIE MITCHELL/STUFF

Further up the atoll there's an isolated village called Tebunginako, colloquially known as the flooded village. It is a living diorama on the theme of climate change, and serves as a grim reminder of what is to come.

The village's children used to be called the red hairs, a local says through a translator: They spent so much time in the sea, their black curls would rust with flicks of red.

It's what life is like in Kiribati – the term "te aba" means both body and land, the two inseparable. Children move in and out of the ocean like it’s air.

A few hundred people used to live in Tebunginako, but only a few remain, living in the shade of the church which is old and frayed, chipped away by the sea.

What was once the village centre is now ocean. Dozens of huts fell into the sea. The village was relocated, but not far enough, and flooded again. Now just the church and a maneaba remain.

The weathered church in the flooded village. PHOTO: CHARLIE MITCHELL\/STUFF

The weathered church in the flooded village. 

The remains of the village become an island at every high tide, when the sea enters a channel and surrounds it on all sides. Many of the villagers chose to move inland, but some villagers remain around the church until a new one is built inland.

The town choir still sings at the church, but plan its visits around the tide, so as not to become stranded.

"Before, nobody lived on that side. Due to the ocean they have to move," a woman says through a translator, while nursing her baby in the maneaba.

"It's not comfortable living here, so they moved backwards."

A child living in Tebunginako. PHOTO: CHARLIE MITCHELL\/STUFF

A child living in Tebunginako. 

Last month, at the United Nations headquarters in New York, US president Donald Trump again made headlines by threatening North Korea with destruction.

There was another story taking place. Many leaders from the Pacific Islands pleaded for action, once again, from countries such as the US to address the causes of climate change.

"Under current warming trends, our islands maybe submerged into the sea within the next few years," Tuvalu president Enele Sopoaga said.

"If and when this happens, we will be forced to abandon our islands, even though we are the least contributors to global warming and sea level rise."

Kiribati president Taneti Mamau addressing the United Nations in September.

Kiribati's president, Taneti Mamau, also spoke. He said his tiny country could no longer wait for aid.

"Our people continue to suffer on a daily basis from the impact of the slow onset climate disaster," he said.

"This may not capture the attention of the global community due to its slow impact and limited media attention, but it is causing pain and suffering in our communities."

Earlier this year, he had come up with a plan: Kiribati would use its sovereign wealth fund as collateral to borrow money for urgent sea-level mitigation work.

It was a decision made in frustration, over the slowness of traditional aid channels to respond to a disaster that was immediate. Kiribati, the tiny country adrift in the Pacific, was moving forward on its own.

"This is a move beyond tradition, but we would rather take the initiative to drive our own aspirations and deliver to our people than to wait on financial assistance that may come at a moment far too late," he said.

"We simply cannot afford to wait any longer."

Charlie Mitchell travelled to Kiribati as part of Stuff's partnership with Unicef NZ. UNICEF stands up for every child so they can have a childhood. Find out more at

A man and his son comb the reef at sunset.

Words and visuals
Charlie Mitchell

Design and layout
Aaron Wood