Tarawa, the bellybutton of the world

From every weather station in the pacific rises at eleven o’clock exactly a big yellow balloon. Soa also from the lawn of the meteorological institute on Tarawa, the main island of Kiribati. Sensitive sensors below the balloon register humidity, wind speed and temperature. All of these data go directly to a collection point in Australia. The camera follows the balloon and we wonder where it is going to come down. We need to gather some real data. Now we have the stories of the residents of Marakei we also like to hear the specialists about climate change. The director of the institute speaks with us. He hesitates and apologises, he cannot tell us a lot. After the second world war, around 1946, the first measurements are registered, but not systematically. That started later. The average temperature rises, just like the sea levels, that much is clear.           We need to gather our data in a different way. Claire, our interpreter proposes to visit sister Marella, an Australian congregation sister, but also hydraulic engineer who works for the government of Kiribati. Claire was also for several years with the congregation and got to know Marella as a wise scientist who knows the weather and water on Kiribati like no one else. We hear a lot in a short time, Marella is clear: ‘what we know for sure is that the level of the sea rises with 3.9 millimetres a year. That means 39 centimetres in ten years and almost 4 metres in 100 year. The highest point of Tarawa is scarcely three metre. That makes you realise that, if this rise continuous like it does now, the water level makes life here impossible in 50 years.’ What can be done Marella? ‘Placing walls around the island, both on the sea as the lagoon side is a huge project which is not certain to help. A big storm, like in 2005 would possibly destroy such a wall. Erosion is already a big problem, especially here on the main island which is overpopulated. With every storm houses are washed away from the beach, but where can the people go? Every island “moves”, sand is caved on one side and added on another place, that his a natural process. Planting mangrove to solidify and hold the ground together and break the waves, is a good method. But the sea level rise does not slow down because of it. Here on south Tarawa storm and erosion are a drama. There live on this narrow strip of land 50.000 people, half of the population of Kiribati. The pull factor, the attraction of Tarawa is big. This is where the government is seated, where the schools are, there is a university, a hospital, some factories, nightlife.       But the big problem of Tarawa and many of the other islands, is in the short term not the rising of the sea level but the availability of drinking water. Rainwater and ground water fill the tanks, but the deepest layer in the tank consists of seawater. That salty water is heavier than the sweet water what floats on top. Due to the rising of the sea level the level of saltwater in the tanks also rises. The sweet layer decreases because of intense use. Salt and sweet get more and more mixed up. Residents notice that the drinking water becomes saltier. On top of that the ground water gets contaminated: many people close together produces a lot of garbage and poop and the dead are buried close to home, often not far from the tank.   This is a different story than the paradise on our friendly island Marakei. Tarawa seems a metaphor of the world: full, dirty, loud and threatened by lack of everything.                 The next morning we go to our last appointment. Now the end of Kiribati is near, we want to go back to the beginning, we want to hear how it came to existence. An old gentlemen, Atanraoi Baiteke, will tell us the story of creation: “Once, in the beginning, the sky laid flat on the earth. The people of Tarawa crawled on the ground and complained that they could not breath. They begged Nareau, the spider God: please, give us some space. We want to stand and walk, lift the sky a little! Nareau heard the complaints for a while and decided to help the people. He jumped down, on top of the tail of a large eel. The eel was shocked, swept his tail into the sky and pushed the sky up with it. But that was not all. The eel burst into thousands of pieces who flew into the world and created new land everywhere: Australia, America, Europe, your Holland, all the land in the world has its origin in Tarawa. Tarawa is the centre of the universe.” Mister Baiteke glows when he looks at us. “It does not really matter where we go when we have to migrate, every land is Tarawa. We are home everywhere.” We smile, we shake hand, full of respect for this joyful men we say goodbye. We are going home, to the Netherlands, to Tarawa. Anne-Marie Boer    

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