Key Points:

As the jet turns in crisp blue equatorial skies on its approach to Kiribati's capital, Tarawa, the vulnerability of the ribbon of atolls unfolds.

It is possible to watch the tide batter the fraying edges of the 30-odd km stretch of little atolls which make up Tarawa - never more than a couple of hundred metres wide.

The collapsing state of the remote Pacific nation is clear from a drive along the single road that crosses a string of causeways as it runs through the atoll: crumbling sea walls, coconut trees shorn of fronds and fruit because of encroaching salt water and long droughts, mounds of filth lining the coastline, overcrowding uncharacteristic of Pacific islands and poverty.

The alarm bells of climate change, sea level rise and global warming have pitchforked this 33-island nation that straddles the equator on to the front pages of the global media. Experts from all over the world have come in droves in search of answers to its impending submergence. Already two small islets have gone from the map.

But new sea level data analysis suggests the danger of Kiribati disappearing beneath the Pacific, unlike the neighbouring atoll nation of Tuvalu, is no longer as immediate as previously believed. Estimates of 20 to 50 years have stretched to 80 to 100 years.

The clear and present danger facing Kiribati is a catalogue of human misery. Long, dry spells have replaced the traditional wet season around December, causing a large-scale migration from the smaller outer islands, particularly the southernmost atoll, Betio, to Tarawa. Betio's population density compares with that of Hong Kong, making it the densest urban settlement in the Pacific islands. In the past five years , the population is thought to have grown by as much as 20,000 on the narrow strip of land.

With almost no sewerage system, not just groundwater but even the surrounding lagoon is contaminated. Travel advisories warn strongly against swimming in the lagoon or drinking well water.

The local hospital, staffed mostly by Cuban doctors, has been registering increasing cases of enteric disorders.

Much of Betio is a shantytown. Without adequate garbage disposal systems, waste accumulates on the shoreline. In some places it is simply burnt, compacted and used as a base for reclaiming land.

The only source of fresh water on these remote atolls is rainwater and because of the unfortunate combination of a fast-growing population and low rainfall, groundwater reserves are running out. Newly sunk bore wells pump out water faster than the rate at which it is replaced, leaving families facing serious freshwater shortages.

The shortage of freshwater has dealt a blow to a novel project initiated by a Taiwanese aid programme, aimed at helping residents grow kitchen gardens. Seeds of several introduced vegetables are given away free and aid workers tutor residents to raise a whole range of produce.

High food prices and an acute shortage of staples prompted the Taiwan Government to send 200 tonnes of rice in aid this month.

With virtually no industry apart from a large copra mill, few avenues for work exist. Kiribati men have earned valuable foreign exchange (about $8.9 million annually) by working as ships' hands on the world's ocean liners.

But some 20 of these men have been indicted on drug smuggling charges, leading at least one major shipping line to declare that it would no longer hire Kiribati seamen.

For many years young Kiribati women have earned money visiting foreign vessels moored beyond the reef .

The women are called "Korkorea" which loosely translated means "Korea bound" and refers to the large number of visiting Korean vessels.

Aid agencies have tried to deal with the phenomenon but without much success. Most women don't see themselves as sex workers, saying the seamen are actually their friends and partners who often look after their families.

But the activity has a price: it is blamed for the spread of sexually transmitted disease and HIV on the atolls. At the end of 2005, 46 cases of HIV were reported, making Kiribati the country with the highest per capita cases in the Pacific Islands.

The Government earns external revenue from licences it sells to foreign vessels to fish in its sprawling exclusive economic zone. But that has hardly been adequate to meet its annual budget, which it has had to supplement with foreign aid and grants to the extent of about 10 per cent of its GDP. Besides, Kiribati loses millions of dollars in access fees because of its inability to police its commercial zone against illegal fishing vessels.

Unlike Nauru, which squandered all its phosphate earnings in a matter of a decade, Kiribati has been more prudent in managing its offshore fund. Valued a few years ago at nearly A$750 million ($842 million) it is believed to have dwindled to around A$500 million over just four years according to independent opposition politician Dr Harry Tong, older brother and arch political rival of President Anote Tong.

At its peak the fund earned about A$20 million annually.

Several politicians and businesspeople say that unless the Government did something drastic on the economy front, it will have no option but to suck the fund dry over the next few years, which would be disastrous for the country.

President Anote Tong acknowledges these problems and says the only immediate solution lies in education and training. These past few years, he has made repeated appeals to the New Zealand and Australian governments to increase aid for helping develop human resources.

"We can never be too well prepared for the effects of climate change," he says. "If circumstances force the migration of our people to other nations at some future date, we want them to go there not as climate change refugees but as people who are equipped to contribute meaningfully to their host nations' economies."

It's an approach backed by Australian Mike Savins, who has lived in Tarawa since the early 1980s and runs a successful clam export and yacht building business.

Says Savins: "Even if the sea level rise-related migration never happens, it's such a good idea to train this potentially huge workforce to be gainfully employed right here. It's so hard to come by trained tradesmen here."

President Tong says both the New Zealand and Australian governments have helped start training programmes. About 50 Kiribati men are in Australia learning trades. A similar number have travelled to New Zealand to train and work on farms under the Registered Seasonal Employer scheme.

Asked why Kiribati looks almost exclusively to New Zealand and Australia for climate change migration rather than smaller and culturally similar Pacific neighbours, the London School of Economics-educated head of state says: "The islands can't appreciate the immediacy of the problem that flat atolls like Kiribati are facing. We are not much higher than two metres above sea level, unlike other islands that have their hills and highlands. Also, a 50-to-100 year timeline is beyond the pale of most leaders' focus." But he remains hopeful that the Pacific Island Forum will play an important role in the future.

Other island governments may already be aware of the possibility of mass migration. In the past few months, the Solomon Islands Government has broken the tradition of free movement between the peoples of the Pacific Forum Countries by imposing a visa regime on the people of Kiribati.

Several Kiribati citizens who landed in Honiara last month were asked to return on the same plane because they had no documentation.

"I was rather surprised by this move," says Ieremia Tabai, the republic's first president, who was also the secretary-general of the Fiji-based Pacific Forum. "They refused me entry but luckily someone recognised me and I explained to them I was there at their Government's invitation."

Tabai believes the world needs to pay greater attention to Kiribati's ecological and economic dilemmas. The alternative could be a socio-economic disaster long before any threat of sea level rise.

Kiribati's plight
A scattered land
Kiribati comprises 33 atolls covering 800 sq km spread over 3.5 million sq km of the Pacific Ocean. The atolls are in three groups: the Gilbert Islands to the west, the central Phoenix Islands and the Line Islands to the east. The country, independent since 1979, has a population of 110,000, mostly crammed on the atolls in the capital, Tarawa.

God and rising sea levels
Independent opposition leader Harry Tong says the islands can never sink because his church believes that "God promised Noah there would not be another flood after the last one."
Michael McKenzie, Vicar-General of the Diocese of Tarawa and Nauru disagrees. "God's promise is, of course, valid. But this sea level rise has man-made causes and God has nothing to do with it."

Dev Nadkarni's visit to Tarawa was supported by the Pacific Co-operation Foundation.