In 2012 the cabinet approved a plan to purchase 6,000 acres of land in Fiji in case rising sea levels force the permanent evacuation of Kiribati citizens. Two years later, Kiribati made its final payment on the purchase of the Fiji land parcel, with Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama confirming that residents of Kiribati will be welcome to relocate to his country if Kiribati becomes uninhabitable.
Former President Sir Ieremia Tabai was in 2010 appointed to the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, which presented its recommendations for reform in the Commonwealth to Commonwealth leaders at CHOGM in Australia in October 2011.
Kiribati (pronounced ‘Kirabas’) spreads across the central Pacific, intersected by the equator and formerly the International Date Line, with most other Commonwealth Pacific island countries lying to its south. Its 33 islands are scattered across 5.2 million sq km of ocean. There are three groups of islands: 17 Gilbert Islands (including Banaba), eight Line Islands and eight Phoenix Islands. The north/south extent is 2,050 km. Kiritimati (formerly Christmas Island) is the world’s biggest coral atoll (388 sq km). Kiritimati in the east is about 3,780 km from Banaba (formerly Ocean Island) in the west.
The main centre and capital is Tarawa, comprising Bairiki (Tarawa South, pop. 47,900 in 2010), Bonriki (Tarawa South, 4,000) and Buariki (Tarawa North, 3,300). Government offices are in Tarawa South at Betio, Bairiki and Bikenibeu. Other populated areas include Taburao (on the island of Abaiang, 4,300), Temaraia (on Nonouti, 3,000), Butaritari island (2,700) and Utiroa (on Tabiteuea, 2,500).
There are some 670 km of all-weather roads in urban Tarawa and Kiritimati. Causeways and bridges link north and south Tarawa, plus several other islands. Bairiki and Bikenibeu in south Tarawa are connected by causeways. Betio, the port area 3 km west of Bairiki, is connected to Bairiki by a causeway. There are about 3,000 vehicles, nearly 75 per cent of them motor cycles.
The principal port is at Betio Islet, Tarawa. International airports are at Bonriki on Tarawa and at Kiritimati, and all inhabited islands have airports. Air Kiribati, the national airline, operates scheduled services to nearly all the country’s outer islands, linking them with Tarawa.
Kiribati is a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, Pacific Community, Pacific Islands Forum and United Nations.
Kiribati is composed of coral atolls on a submerged volcanic chain, nowhere rising higher than two metres above sea level, except for Banaba, a coral outcrop, which rises to 80 metres. Most islands have coastal lagoons. Some lagoons are large (up to 80 km long), and bounded to the east by narrow strips of land. There are no hills or streams. The UN’s 1989 report on the ‘greenhouse effect’ listed Kiribati as an endangered country in the event of a rise in sea level during the 21st century.
In February 2005, massive seas breached sea walls, devastating some villages, destroying farmland and contaminating freshwater wells.
Varies from maritime equatorial (central islands) to tropical in the north and south. There is little temperature variation: from an average 29°C in the southern Gilberts to 27°C in the Line Islands, dropping by less than 1°C in the coolest months. Humidity is constant at 70–90 per cent. North-west trade winds blow between March and October. From November to April, there are occasional heavy rains, and strong to gale force winds, though Kiribati is outside the cyclone belt. Rainfall patterns vary considerably from year to year; drought is a constant danger.
In 1997, Kiritimati was devastated by El Niño, which, according to scientists studying the island, brought heavy rainfall, a half-metre rise in sea level and extensive flooding. Some 40 per cent of the coral was killed and the 14 million bird population, reputed to be the world’s richest, deserted the island.
The most significant environmental issues are limited natural freshwater resources, and heavy pollution of the south Tarawa lagoon, due to population growth around the lagoon and traditional practices such as lagoon latrines and open-pit dumping.
Poor soil (composed of coral sand and rock fragments) limits vegetation-types and agricultural potential. Coconuts cover most islands, except Banaba and some islands in the Phoenix and Line groups. Forest covers 15 per cent of the land area and there was no significant loss of forest cover during 1990–2011.
Many varieties of sea birds visit the islands, including terns, shearwaters and skuas.