Kiribati Island: The Sinking Paradise

On a UN Mission, I visited Kiribati Island in 2012. Back then, I was doing consultancy work for UN Women as Convention On the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Reporting Adviser for Pacific countries of Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Kiribati.  My mission was to provide training on Kiribati’s CEDAW reporting obligations and Human Rights Treaties common core document. I was there to provide assistance (including ad-hoc) in the preparation and implementation of a work plan for CEDAW report completion and submission for the country of Kiribati. I was working with the Ministry of Women, Youth and Social Affairs, and both the national and the multi-sectoral CEDAW committees.

Kiribati Island (pronounced as Ki-ri-bas).  Also known as the Gilbert Island when it was under the British colonial rule. In 1979, it was granted full independence by UK.  Kiribati  is located in central Pacific as part of the island group of Micronesia. It is divided into three islands: Gilbert Islands, Phoenix, and Line Islands.  An island composed of 33 atolls with 21 islands inhabited.  The capital of Kiribati is Tarawa located in Gilbert Islands.       

Arrival. I flew via AirPacific from Nadi, Fiji Islands, on an early morning flight with a total flying time of 3 hours and 12 minutes arriving at Bonriki Airport in Tarawa. There are two international airports in Kiribati: Bonriki and Cassidy Airport located in North Banana, Kirimati Island.

It was raining and windy when I arrived in Kiribati. On my way to the motel (the motel van transport came to pick me up), I noticed the many number of fishponds that cultured milkfish. There were signages along the road.  I also observed that the road leading to the motel was just one straight road, a few holes on the way but over all, it was in good condition.  My concerned was not so much about the road condition, it was more of the strong wind and the rain. You see, Kiribati is a ‘sinking island,’ a long term threat they are facing because of climate change. And the usual paranoid and ignorant me was thinking that it might be the day that the island was going to sink and that was the end of me!

Accommodation. There are only two hotels in Kiribati: Ontitaai Hotel (motel accommodation) and Mary’s Motel. During my mission, I stayed at Mary’s Motel because it was walking distance to the Ministry of Women which I was working with. During my stay, Mary’s motel was expanding and it was under construction. It has a small restaurant but it has limited choices of food. Due to scarcity of fresh water because salt water intrudes into the deep well, bottled water in Kiribati is expensive. And by the way, Kiribati Island uses Australian dollars.

The room I was accommodated was nice and small, just enough space to move around but with a private toilet and bathroom.  I had this funny experience while I was taking a shower. I was surprised (I was staying on the second floor) that there was sufficient water flowing through the shower (after having been through many islands and water has always been one of the issues). So I thought, I was lucky enjoying plenty of water in an island for my shower.  But I knew there was something off, so I started tasting the water – on my second day, and I found out that it was actually salt water; part (hope so) of it was due to salt-water intrusion in the well. So my ‘funny’ experience turned into an expensive one because I had to buy bottled water to take my shower. And yes, paid in Australian dollars.

I-Kiribati, one of the motel’s staff and me (2012).

Farewell Kiribati. Since I went to Kiribati to work, I really did not get the chance to visit other islands. My route had been limited to going to and fro to Ministry’s office and motel. I met a few expatriates who were working in the island and a couple of tourists who were enjoying their island vacation.  I had a good experience during my four days of stay. I am still looking forward to visit this island again but then, will I still get to enjoy its beauty?

At present, Kiribati is facing climate change, and is slowly sinking. In other words, there is a rising of sea water level of 2.9mm per year as shown by studies. Accordingly, it will become uninhabitable in the next 30 to 60 years. A beautiful paradise but will soon be part of the underwater world. When I left Kiribati back to Vanuatu, I was also left with two questions: who is to be blamed for climate change (Kiribati by the way, has done little to cause this), and what is next for the people of Kiribati (migration, and finding resources)? I am not sure whether I will still be around when this island will sink, not because I am waiting for it happen. But I am sure that when it happens (maybe I will still be alive by then), my heart will also sink with Kiribati. As an international development worker, I do not work only to deliver what are on my Terms of Reference. When I work, I put my heart and soul into it. There is always that part of me that stays with the place and the people I worked with. Kiribati is definitely one of them.

View from my Mary’s Motel balcony (2012).


How to reach Kiribati Island. I flew from Fiji Islands to Tarrawa, capital of Kiribati, via AirPacific.

Visa.  For Filipinos, a visa is required to enter Kiribati Island. I was based in Vanuatu then, so that the next available Kiribati consulate office for me was in Suva, Fiji Islands. I went there personally, and the visa processing and approval took only half a day.

Accommodation. I stayed in Mary’s Motel.  Ontitaai Hotel is also a choice. There are also other lodging houses to choose from if you are interested.