The Problems of Life On An Island Paradise

The tropical paradise of Abaiang Atoll, Kiribati

Justin Kemp is UNICEF NZ’s Programmes Officer. He explains the challenges of getting aid to one of the most remote — and beautiful — countries in the world.

Kiribati isn’t just isolated — it’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It is a huge collection of small atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, spread across the same distance as that between Los Angeles and New York.

Kiribati isn’t just isolated — it’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

At first appearances, the main atoll — Tarawa — in some areas, is very rough. It’s overpopulated, people are living in small shacks with pigs and dogs running around, there’s a lot of litter. There’s also a lack of employment for people, so that’s a challenge. But the people are really friendly, and I still really like Tarawa.

Three of the UNICEF team on a delivery mission to Abaiang Atoll

The outer islands are more like what you might think of as an island paradise — they have fairly small populations and can be stunningly beautiful. The colour of the ocean is incredible.

Kiribati is different to many other Pacific Island countries in that it doesn’t have much land to grow fruit and crops. The isolation makes them self-reliant, so they have to utilise their limited resources effectively by doing things like digging out big pits and growing swamp taro.

Locals dig out shallow pits in order to grow swamp taro

Although there are no rivers in Kiribati, there is a thin layer of fresh water you can dig down to access. But it’s reliant on rain, and the rainfall can be quite erratic. It’s one of the potential impacts of climate change on Kiribati.

Kiribati doesn’t just have to deal with sea levels rising, drought is predicted to increase, and so is the intensity and frequency of extreme rainfall. So they’ll have more droughts, but when it does rain it’ll be more intense, flooding out these small low-lying islands. Because they’re so flat the water just sits on top and can become a health hazard.

The islands are already being affected by climate change. I visited one atoll where the sea had come in and inundated the land. The vegetation was all gone, leaving just a smelly wasteland, useless for growing crops.

This once-highly vegetated land was inundated by seawater, and is now a swampy mess.

Inundation like this is becoming more common, and all along the coast you can see beaches where coconut trees once grew, being eroded away by the sea, and dying trees lining the high water mark.

Coconut trees throughout Kiribati are being killed off by rising sea levels.

The main project we have in Kiribati is water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in schools, with amazing support from the New Zealand Government Aid Programme. Imagine sending your child to a school that has no toilet, nowhere to wash hands, no soap… it’s the sort of thing that New Zealanders would really struggle with.

Two of the many children we met on our visit

That’s the reality for a lot of these children in Kiribati — going to a school without a toilet, and having to use the bush, or lagoon, because that’s what’s been traditionally done. Lots of children aren’t going to school because they’re getting diarrhoea and other health related issues from dirty water or poor hygiene practices.

It’s the sort of thing that New Zealanders would really struggle with.

We build toilets, wells, and provide water tanks, but sometimes it’s the really simple stuff that can have a big impact, such as providing basic hand-washing facilities, and soap, and teaching kids the importance of washing their hands.

Packing up the boat with much-needed supplies to get to remote communities

Getting to these atolls usually involves a boat trip — the planes that fly there are little pencil planes — which aren’t so good for carrying supplies. But the logistics of transporting things like big water tanks can be a challenge.

One of our missions while I was there, was to deliver crates of things like soap and toothpaste to the atoll of Abaiang.

We had to rope supplies together before we paddled them into shore.

We brought the boat in as close as we could, but we couldn’t get close enough to deliver the supplies, and we had one dinghy, without an oar. It didn’t look very far, so we jumped in the water with our lifejackets on and pushed the dinghy the rest of the way — we were literally swimming the supplies in. I think it looked a lot closer than it was.

Note to self: land often looks closer than it really is.

By the time we reached shore we were exhausted, but all the children were lined up and gave us a big welcome.

They’re very proud of their atolls, and communities are very proud of their schools, and we visited the toilets they’d built. They take a lot of pride in working on them — they’re all made with local materials, and some of them are almost works of art.

A new school toilet, proudly built and maintained by the local community

My role might be small but it part of a bigger programme of work that UNICEF is doing there and it’s hard not to feel a great deal of pride when you can see the results.

It’s the main reason I do the job — to see these children happy in school.

It’s the main reason I do the job — to see these children happy in school, to see the pride they have in their schools, and to have them take you around and show you the toilets they worked on themselves, it’s really satisfying to know you’re helping contribute to facilities that mean kids aren’t getting sick.

The UNICEF team at the completion of the delivery mission to Abaiang

For more information about UNICEF’s work in the Pacific, click here.