Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Kiribati's quiet leader cranks up volume

Anote Tong. Photo / Greg Bowker
Anote Tong. Photo / Greg Bowker

Kiribati's President, Anote Tong, is a small, softly spoken man from a small country - but he has a big problem and is increasingly finding he also has a big voice.

Of all the leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum in Auckland this week, it was Mr Tong - a young-looking 59-year-old - who had the dominant voice.

He said nothing about climate change he has not said before in the eight years he has led the small country of 100,000 people which is made up of low-lying islands. He has spoken at Copenhagen, at the United Nations General Assembly, anywhere he could.

The difference was that this time the visit to Kiribati by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon on his way to the Pacific Forum - and Mr Ban's shock at the damage rising sea levels had already done - ensured Mr Tong had an audience.

Some of the options he set out for Kiribati sounded fantastical - a floating island, which he described as similar to oil rigs. He had seen models "and it was like science fiction, almost like something in space.

So modern, I don't know if our people could live on it."

But his job as a leader was to give his people choices. "As the leader, that is my task. Now the choice is a matter for them, but I must provide the options.

"But what would you do for your grandchildren? If you're faced with the option of being submerged, with your family, would you jump on an oil rig like that? And [I] think the answer is 'yes'. We are running out of options, so we are considering all of them."

What he most wanted was to maintain the nation of Kiribati - wherever it might have to go - rather than see its people scattered about the world as climate change refugees.

When asked whether any other countries had offered land which Kiribati could use as its own, he answers sadly: "Well, isn't that the question. I think I've always appealed to the morality of humanity. And we are challenging humanity to answer that question."

He has some suggestions for countries with an island or two at their disposal.

"Every time I fly to Auckland I see these huge land masses which they think are derelict islands. But we would love to have them. And we would love to have Tasmania, if you would give it to me."

He says it with a laugh. But at the moment Kiribati has barely enough money even to finish one seawall. "There are so many seawalls that need to be done."

A 2009 survey put the cost of protecting infrastructure at $947 million. Billions of dollars have been pledged to a UN fund for countries at risk from climate change and he is campaigning to put that money to use now.

He has a challenge for sceptics: "Come and live in my country. Face the reality. Put their children and grandchildren in my country. They write from a long distance."

- NZ Herald

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