South Pacific island nation faces Atlantis-like dilemma

Tiny Kiribati faces the possibility of evacuating to the undemocratic, military regime of Fiji

That sinking feeling
Justin Mcmanus/The AGE/Getty Images

The island nation of Kiribati, facing the very real prospect of becoming a modern-day Atlantis, has come up with a plan highlighting its desperation: evacuating its population to a dictatorship. Last week, the sinking South Pacific nation endorsed plans to buy 6,000 acres on Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji, whose military regime continues its clampdown on free speech and media. Political questions aside, Kiribati’s plight—one facing other low-lying countries—raises difficult questions. “It’s never happened before—where a country has ceased to exist because of a physical problem,” said Columbia University’s Michael Gerrard. A state’s “legal existence” depends on it having a “permanent population,” the climate law expert adds. Yet the question is no longer academic, says Kiribatan President Anote Tong: “For the younger generation, it is a matter of survival.” Already, acute water shortages are raising alarms as sea water has begun contaminating the water supply. To Tuk Malcolm, a Kiribatan student, a sense of being “from nowhere” is setting in. “You’re a foreigner to this world,” he says. “You don’t have an identity.”