Kiribati: Rapanui Redux

Kiribati is an island nation that is dispersed over 3.5 million square km of the central Pacific Ocean, yet has a land area of only 811 square km. The population of Kiribati is currently around 110,000 resulting in a population density that is similar to China (around 130 persons per square km). However, over half of the population of Kiribati resides on the islets of South Tarawa (part of Tarawa Atoll) where the population density is over 3000 persons per square km which is comparable to Staten Island in New York. It is one thing to live on a densely populated island in close proximity to a major continent but another to do so thousands of kilometres from the nearest significant land mass.

The population of Tarawa Atoll almost certainly exceeds its carrying capacity, however with the assistance of foreign aid, largely from Australia, Taiwan and New Zealand, this carrying capacity overshoot is maintained. New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs recently visited Kiribati to “see first-hand the difference our aid dollars are making”. New Zealand contributed $9 million in aid in 2011/12. The key areas that New Zealand’s aid programme focused on in 2011/12 included: urban development; workforce skills development; and improved public sector performance.

Kiribati is, and will be, one of the most severely impacted nations by rising sea-levels as a result of climate change. The highest point on South Tarawa is a mere 3m. However of equally great concern is the population growth rate of Kiribati. Kiribati has a population growth rate of 1.8% (1.9% natural increase and -0.1% net migration). Kiribati had a TFR of 3.8 (2007-09) which is similar to a number of other Pacific Nations. At its current growth rate, the population of Kiribati is likely to have more than doubled by 2050. This population growth can only serve to enhance any hardships resulting from climate change.

A doubling of the population of South Tarawa would lead to a similar population density to Singapore. Clearly this is completely unsustainable and would result in a massive population overshoot. The only viable short-term option for Kiribati is mass emigration. The only sustainable long-term option is a massive reduction in population growth via reducing TFR to replacement or below.

New Zealand should place a greater focus on meeting the need to reduce the population growth rate of Kiribati. Any other assistance, while worthwhile and necessary, will only leave us running faster to stay in the same place. Allowing Kiribati (and most other Pacific Nations) to follow the fate of Rapanui (Easter Island) is not only unacceptable but inhumane.

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