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Live sustainably to help Kiribati communities

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Live sustainably to help Kiribati communities

In February this year, twelve UNSW students from all different faculties went on a New Colombo Plan sponsored climate change research trip to Kiribati, a nation of low-lying atolls in the Pacific Ocean. We had students from medicine, law, arts and social sciences, architecture, engineering, commerce, design and marketing. One of the most important things that we learnt was how being sustainable is not that difficult at all, and that the Kiribati people are absolute pros at living in harmony with their environment.

We travelled to Kiribati to research the social, economic and environmental effects of climate change. However, this trip also taught us much about ourselves and the society that we come from back in Australia. It was an opportunity to see how those who contribute nothing to global pollution are suffering from the effects of climate change. The islands of Kiribati are on the equator halfway between Australia and Hawaii.

I had such an incredible experience in Kiribati; words cannot describe the way that my eyes have been opened to the resourcefulness and sustainability of the Kiribati people. To understand the deep connection between the land and people of Kiribati is something that is unique and beautiful as the islands of Kiribati. There is so much knowledge that is in danger of being lost if we do not take action to mitigate the effects of climate change on these unique islands. These islands may be considered some of the most remote places in the world, but to be honest, they are some of the most connected communities that I have ever been privileged to come into. No WOman is an island entirely of HERself – that quote by John Donne has never rung more true for me. With a little bit of openness and a lot of patience, you never know what fortunes will come your way in Kiribati.

The unfortunate truth is climate change is well and truly with us now. I don’t want to sound like a pessimist, but after spending time researching the effects of climate change in Kiribati in February this year, I can confirm that YES, we are changing the climate of our one precious planet and, YES, we are going to face extreme challenges as a result. When you are on an island that is as wide as the road at some points because of rising sea levels, where crops have failed due to rising salinity and communities have suffered from extreme weather conditions, it really becomes apparent. When you speak with the ‘old men’ (the leaders of the village) and they tell you that they fear for the conditions that their grandchildren will face as a result of climate change, it breaks your heart.

Erica Longhurst - Kiribati Article 2 (Chev News)

UNSW ‘New Colombo Plan’ climate change research student group.

Erica Longhurst - Kiribati Article (Chev News)

Past Chevalier College student Erica Longhurst (front right) with UNSW student research group visiting Kiribati in February 2016.

There are many beautiful places in the world and Kiribati is definitely high on the list in terms of human and natural beauty. However, Kiribati faces the threat of the rising tide – with a maximum height above sea level of only two metres it truly is at the mercy of rising sea levels. Already these people have had to face the destruction of their homes and way of life as a result of rising sea temperatures and levels. You might have not heard of Kiribati…and isn’t it sad to think that a place you might have never heard of could disappear in less than 50 years. That is the current expiry date that has been suggested by the president, Anote Tong.

So, now that we are back in Australia, what are we going to do? One of the important things that we as a team are trying to focus on is just getting the message out there about climate change. Advocating for a more sustainable society that is not driven by consumerism is our top priority. We understand that we have to choose our battles well and this is something that we really can change. We are also working on a number of other projects, including better battery storage on Kiribati, an education exchange program, a domestic violence awareness program and a social enterprise program involving the sale of Kiribati beach mats in Australia.

So, whilst we might feel like there is very little that we can do, I think that by spreading the message that Kiribati IS a country worth fighting for, we can really make a difference. Let’s get real about climate change! We can make a difference by educating ourselves about the physical effects of climate change that are ALREADY IN MOTION. The sooner we bite the bullet, the better.

Erica Longhurst
Student of Medicine II, University of NSW
(Class of 2014, Chevalier College)
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