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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Climate Change and Population Health

Warmer sea temperatures, loss of freshwater supplies, extensive coastal erosion, coral bleaching, proliferation of harmful lagoon algae, and increasingly frequent king tides have submerged habitable lands (MOE, 2010). In a nation deeply affected by changes in oceanic conditions, a significant public health crisis arises from the scarcity of fresh water. Abnormal rainfall patterns have led to crop failures on land and insufficient fresh water reserves across the country. Given that a majority of the population relies on man-made wells or rain catchment tanks, erratic weather patterns and destructive tides have severely depleted freshwater sources. Coral atolls, composed of porous limestone, serve as a natural filtration system for the Ghyben-Herzberg freshwater lens beneath the atoll’s surface (Kirch, 2000: 47).

As storm surges become more frequent and intense, the natural filtration capacity of the freshwater system diminishes, leading to contamination of freshwater sources by polluted runoff and seawater (Climate Change Effects in Kiribati, 2010). The first UN mission to Kiribati, led by the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation in 2012, highlighted the precarious state of freshwater supplies in the country. She emphasized the urgent need for action to address water shortages affecting Kiribati's population of 100,000 (Pearl, 2012). Drastic weather patterns further exacerbate the country's freshwater scarcity.

In the past, Kiribati experienced two distinct seasons: the dry season from May to October and the wet season from November to April. However, in recent years, Kiribati's weather patterns have become increasingly unpredictable, leading to severe consequences for its citizens. For instance, a prolonged drought from April 2007 to early 2009 severely affected the southern Gilberts and Banaba, while the 2010-2011 droughts significantly impacted the northern Gilberts (Climate Change Effects in Kiribati, 2010). During these periods, natural freshwater supplies dwindled, wells became brackish, vegetation withered, and lands turned arid.

Heavy rains following prolonged drought periods pose new health challenges for Kiribati citizens. Water catchment tanks, essential for collecting freshwater during rainy seasons, become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, leading to localized outbreaks of dengue fever. Kiribati has experienced four documented dengue outbreaks, with two occurring in the 1970s and two more in the 1980s. In 2010, twenty cases were reported. South Tarawa, with its crowded urban environment and ideal vector habitat conditions, remains at a relatively high risk for dengue fever outbreaks (Kiribati Adaptation Project, 2008).

In 2010, the Kiribati Ministry of Health recorded a concerning increase in diarrheal infections, malnutrition, and vector-borne diseases compared to the previous decade (Climate Change Effects in Kiribati, 2010). While excess water poses public health challenges, the availability of fresh water remains crucial for maintaining healthy populations. Access to safe drinking water not only improves overall health but also reduces the incidence of water-borne diseases. Kiribati's vulnerable freshwater supply, particularly on the main island, has contributed to numerous health issues. A UN mission focused on safe drinking water in Kiribati identified several significant obstacles, including high urban population density, unsustainable urban development, and a fragile freshwater supply, hindering efforts to provide adequate safe drinking water and sanitation in the urban capital (Pearl, 2012). 

The lack of safe drinking water is taking a toll on the population's health, with Kiribati facing one of the highest infant mortality rates in the Pacific region. Approximately 43 out of every 1,000 babies in Kiribati will not reach their first birthday (SPC, 2009). While there has been some improvement over time, a significant number of infant deaths are still attributed to waterborne illnesses (WHO, 2011). In 2009, one in five people required medical intervention for diarrhea or dysentery, highlighting the widespread impact of waterborne diseases. Shockingly, four children died from diarrhea every month in South Tarawa alone during that year (Pacific Infrastructure Advisory Center, 2010).

In South Tarawa, the natural water sources are either contaminated or vulnerable to pollution, rendering them unsuitable for use as safe water supplies. The sewage systems, installed in 1982 following a cholera outbreak, are now deteriorating and leaking into the atoll’s natural aquifers. Waste accumulation on the main island further pollutes the groundwater and the surrounding lagoon, posing a risk to marine life, including reef fish, which can become hazardous to consume (Pacific Infrastructure Advisory Center, 2010).

Open defecation, inadequate hygiene education, and a shortage of toilet facilities all play a role in contaminating water supplies in an environment where nearly half of the national population resides (ADB, 2012). Alongside various social and economic factors, Kiribati's substandard environmental health conditions serve as significant push factors contributing to population emigration, a topic I will delve into in the following section.

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