By Christiane Oelrich -
THE Pacific island nation of Kiribati at first appears to be a South Sea paradise, with its long sandy beaches, coconut palms, absence of industry and few cars - but the reality is less appealing.
The beaches are fouled with human excrement, there are rubbish heaps everywhere, and wrecked cars line the roads. Tarawa, a chain of islands 30 kilometres long linked by causeways, is the capital of the nation of around 103,000.
The capital is overpopulated, expensive, plagued by unemployment and poverty.
Kiribati's drawbacks are worsened by the effects of climate change. Pacific storms are increasingly unpredictable, erosion is eating away at the thin soil, and much of the land will almost certainly disappear beneath the waves as the seas rise.
"The dear Lord has not made things easy for us," President Anote Tong says. Tarawa ranges in width from as little as 10 metres up to about 200-300 metres.
Tong has few illusions about the future of his aid-dependent nation, placing little faith in the United Nations' climate conferences, the next of which is set for Doha tomorrow. His country is being submerged, he acknowledges.
Kiribati has bought 2,400 hectares on the Fiji Islands, a couple of hours' flight away, to move the population to when the time comes.
"We have to be prepared," the president says, expressing the conviction that Kiribati will be virtually submerged by mid-century.
Conditions turn nasty when it rains and is windy. The waves crash over the embankments in some places, inundating roads and flowing off into the sea on the other side.
Most people live crowded in small wooden or bamboo shacks, with the lucky ones in houses on stilts. A heavy downpour means the soil is quickly waterlogged, drawing the children out to splash in the puddles.
Tong has become a spokesman in the climate debate, calling on rich countries to shoulder their obligations. His country needs aid merely to survive, to build coastal defences and to shift villages away from the beaches, but donor funds are slow in coming.
Kiribati has seen marked changes in climate. The traditional dry period, or Aumaiaki, between April and September can now be rather wet, while there are weeks without rain in the rainy season, known as Aumeang.
Coastal defences have been broken by the encroaching sea, while palm trees lie uprooted half in the water or dry out during unexpected droughts. This means no harvest in copra, or dried coconut kernel, the main source of income. Drought also means no rainwater to supplement meagre supplies for drinking.
Despite the bleak future, the atmosphere in the crowded minibus taxis with their hard seats is cheerful as music blares at full blast from the speakers.
A conductress collects the fares as she holds the rusty door which has long ceased to close properly. Passengers help her to heave it open and closed at each stop.
One of the passengers is Marina, 22, travelling with her two-year-old daughter. She is unemployed. "My boyfriend sometimes goes out fishing," she says. But she lives with her parents, along with three sisters and two brothers.
Reetati is 26 and works as a hotel manager. "I've got four younger sisters who have one baby after the other," she says. "What else is there to do?" Reetati studied science in Fiji. "But then my best friend's mother needed help with the hotel and so I came back," she says.
Ties of family and friends, as well as mutual help, are important in Kiribati. "Life's okay. I have my parents and brothers and siblings here. We manage. I don't want to leave," says Mary, who works in a guesthouse with a restaurant.
She says she once worked on a cruise ship, but got homesick.
Many foreign experts see the population as living from day to day.
UN rapporteur on drinking water and sanitation Catarina de Albuquerque expressed astonishment during a visit in the summer that no one in the government was responsible for water issues.
"I was shocked by the child mortality rate in Kiribati, which is the highest in the Pacific," de Albuquerque said. "If the country seriously wants to reduce preventable deaths of children, then sanitation and hygiene are two vital issues to be addressed as a matter of urgency."