An Immediate Concern

Children wading through high tides that flooded a village in South Tarawa, Kiribati. 

Photo: Josh Haner, New York Times


The present case study examines drivers of climate change affecting a South Pacific Island community, Kiribati, including sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, and ocean acidification.  Further, the case study examines the impact of climate change on water resources, food supply, and health of Kiribati people.  From these impacts, Kiribati’s risk and vulnerability can be used to develop adaptation plans for communities and build resilience going forward.

Climate Change Impacts on Small Islands

Impacts on small islands from increase in tropical storms

IPCC Small Islands Report



According to the IPCC report on small islands, there would be negligible salinity impacts on small islands with sea level increases of just 1 meter, making the freshwater supply non-potable (Nurse et al., 2014). High “king” tides, essentially extreme high tides resulting from sea level rise, cause inner regions to become inundated with brackish water, leaving the islanders with a limited and eventually scarce water supply (Nurse et al., 2014).



It is expected that agricultural lands will be compromised due to climate change impacts, like higher temperatures, altered rainfall, and sea level rise (McIver, 2016). Food shortage will also result from ocean acidification, which causes a reduction in marine biodiversity and death of several fish species islanders rely on as a food source (IPCC, 2014). 



Pacific island communities already have generally poor health, making them particularly vulnerable to amplification of already present health issues. To give some perspective, Pacific Islander average life expectancy is 10 or more years below someone living in a developed country (World Health Organization, 2015). Highest priority climate-related health risks in Pacific Island communities include compromised safety and security of water and food, vector borne diseases and population pressure (McIver, 2016). 


Key risks and potential for adaptation on small islands

IPCC Small Islands Report

The Republic of Kiribati

The Republic of Kiribati, South Pacific



Many communities are near the coast, with more than half of its citizens living on Tarawa Atoll and many islanders still live in traditional raised huts (Weiss 2015).  Kiribati is one of the lesser-developed islands in the Pacific, with weak infrastructure, problems of overcrowding (The World Factbook).  As such, climate change can be seen a “threat accelerator” because it will exacerbate these current issues (Harvey, 2014).

Because Kiribati is an extremely low-lying island, the communities are particularly vulnerable to saltwater intrusion.  Rising sea levels will displace residents, according to the Kiribati government, but prior to that residents will likely be relocated because of saltwater intrusion and its detrimental effects (Republic of Kiribati Office of the President).


Small islands, like Kiribati, are already facing the increasing risks and realities of climate change.  Of particular concern are how sea level rise  impacts Kiribati, resulting in water and food insecurity, and increased health risks. 

The Republic of Kiribati is an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, comprised of 33 atolls and reef islands (Weiss, 2015).  The total land size of the islands is 810 square kilometers but the nation spans a vast 3.5 million square kilometers of the Pacific (Weiss, 2015).  The average height of the nation’s 33 islands is no more than two meters, making Kiribati exceedingly vulnerable to climate change impacts related to sea level rise (Weiss, 2015).


South Tarawa Atoll, a narrow strip of land between a lagoon and the ocean, as seen from the air.

Photo: Kiribati government employee

Vulnerability to Climate Change Impacts in Kiribati

Water and Food Security

Food and water security are two major areas of concern for Kiribati, both of which are linked to inevitable sea level rise (World Health Organization, 2015).  Freshwater supply on small islands, especially in developing nations, is already an inadequate resource and, as a result, Kiribati is predisposed to climate-induced water vulnerabilities (Nurse et al., 2014).

Both domestic agriculture and fishery operations are currently relied on for livelihoods and a food course, both of which will be impacted by climate change (World Health Organization, 2015). Kiribati is already facing a declining agricultural output and is likely to continue seeing climate related changes in the food supply (The World Factbook). 

Kiribati residents rely on several fish species as a food source, and because of this dependency, the communities will be particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification, sea level rise, and warming ocean temperatures (IPCC, 2014).

Lack of food supply resulting from climate related crop failures and ocean acidification can be expected to affect human health indirectly, posing risks to human health and amplifying food insecurity (World Health Organization, 2015).


Health Risks

A direct link between these diseases and climate variability has been established, leaving vulnerable areas more susceptible (McIver, 2016).  Extreme weather events cause disruption in local ecology, indirectly increasing the loads of mosquitoes (McIver, 2016).  Kiribati has already experienced increasing incidences of malaria and dengue fever and it is projected that these diseases will increase in the future under a changing climate (IPCC, 2014; Nurse et al., 2014).


Kiribati rely on fish for nutrition and lack many alternatives

Photo: Quentin Hanich

Climate change and vector-borne disease

Figure: Climate Nexus

Building Resilience Through Adaptation Measures

Like with other island states, climate-induced sea level rise and concomitant migration will be needed over the next century (McIver et al, 2016; Harvey, 2014).

The Kiribati government has created the Kiribati Adaptation Plan (KAP) intended to reduce vulnerability to the above impacts.  The Office of the President in Kiribati has implemented the plan through three phases (preparation, implementation, expansion), which work to increase awareness of climate change and protect resources.  Under the plan, there are several initiatives to manage water supply and protect coastal areas, with an additional focus on increased planning for settlements (Republic of Kiribati Office of the President).

A helpful video summarizing the present study was made by BBC's Tim McDonald to give detail to Kiribati's dilemma.


Kiribati resident in South Tarawa, Kiribati 

Photo: Josh Haner, New York Times

Useful sources to further explore this issue

"Kiribati's Climate Change Catch-22"

About the Author

Jessica LaMay is a Biology and Environmental Studies combined major at St. Lawrence University, class of 2018.  She studied The Republic of Kiribati for Dr. Jon Rosales' Adaptation to Climate Change course.  Jessica became interested in the South Pacific during her studies abroad at James Cook University in Australia, and while traveling to Thailand and New Zealand in the Spring of 2016.  Her experiences diving the Great Barrier Reef and reefs in the Gulf of Thailand, in particular, prompted Jessica's concern with the implications of climate change on communities that depend on diverse marine ecosystems. 

Photo: Jessica LaMay in Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

Work Cited

Harvey, G. (2014, May 22). Sinking States: Climate Change and the Pacific. The Diplomat. Retrieved from

IPCC (2014). Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Summaries, Frequently Asked Questions, and Cross-Chapter Boxes (AR5). New York: Cambridge University Press.

McIver, L., Kim, R., Woodward, A., Hales, S., Spickett, J., Katscherian, D., & Naicker, J. (2016). Health Impacts of Climate Change in Pacific Island Countries: A Regional Assessment of Vulnerabilities and Adaptation Priorities. Environmental Health Perspectives, 124(11), 1707-1714.

Nurse, L. A., Mclean, R. F., Agard, J., Briguglio, L. P., Duvat-Magnan, V., Pelesikoti, N., Tompkins, E., & Webb, A. (2014). Small islands in: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part B: Regional Aspects (AR5). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Republic of Kiribati Office of the President: Climate Change. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from

The World Factbook. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from

Weiss, K. R. (2015, October 28). Kiribati’s Dilemma: Before We Drown We May Die Of Thirst. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from

World Health Organization. (2015). Human Health and Climate Change in Pacific Island Countries. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO Press.


Climate Nexus

IPCC Small Islands Report

National Geographic

New York Times

University of Wollongong Australia