Climate Change Threatens Taiwan’s Vulnerable Allies

Coral bleaching caused by warmer, more acidic waters threatens Kiribati’s ecology and economy. (Photo: Embassy of Kiribati)
Coral bleaching caused by warmer, more acidic waters threatens Kiribati’s ecology and economy. (Photo: Embassy of Kiribati)

Taiwan’s diplomatic allies include particularly impoverished and fragile nations that are expected to experience the impact of climate change more severely than developed countries.

On the list of the top 10 countries most impacted by climate change from 1994 to 2013 – dubbed the Climate Change Risk (CRI) index by environmental think tank GermanWatch – five of them are Taiwan’s allies: Honduras, #1, Haiti, #3, Nicaragua #4, Dominican Republic, #8, and Guatemala, #9.

Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that rising seas may threaten the very existence of island nations, particularly in the South Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Caribbean. Four of the six nations cited by the IPCC as especially vulnerable are also Taiwan’s allies: the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and Tuvalu in the South Pacific, and Saint Christopher and Nevis in the Caribbean.

Many of the nations on the CRI were victims of singular, catastrophic events – such as Hurricane Sandy that devastated Haiti in 2012 (and much of the U.S. East Coast as well) – which climate scientists hesitate to directly attribute to global climate change. In the case of island nations, however, the direct role of climate change is much clearer. These islands are already experiencing coastal erosion, sea flooding, and saline intrusion into fresh-water supplies due to rising seas. At the same time, carbon dioxide accumulation as seas become warmer and more acidic is causing coral reefs to die off, threatening the marine ecologies that these nations depend on for their economic livelihood and spurring outward migration.

Sea levels have risen 20 centimeters since 1900, according to the IPCC, and are expected to rise by another 70 before the end of the century, assuming that greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations remain below 500 parts per million (ppm). But the level could rise by more than three meters if GHG concentrations are allowed to increase to 700-1,500 ppm. GHG emissions concentrations broke the 400 ppm barrier in 2015.

Most of Kiribati’s islands are long, narrow coral atolls barely above sea level. (Photo: Embassy of Kiribati)
Most of Kiribati’s islands are long, narrow coral atolls barely above sea level. (Photo: Embassy of Kiribati)

The IPCC says “an 80-cm sea-level rise could inundate two-thirds of the Marshall Islands and Kiribati.” An island nation comprised of some 33 coral atolls straddling the equator halfway between Hawaii and Australia, Kiribati is considered to be among the least developed nations. Its 120,000 citizens are crammed onto 20 inhabited islands, nearly all of which are only two to four meters above sea level, making them highly vulnerable to rising seas.

Kiribati’s ambassador to Taiwan, Teekoa Iuta, says that “on the outer islands, we have seen whole villages destroyed because the sea is eating away at our shores – whole villages have disappeared and communities have had to dislocate.”

Yet, as dire as this situation seems, Iuta says that changing weather patterns in the area are an even graver threat. “We are experiencing stronger winds, and when we have stronger winds during the high-tide periods, naturally the waves are much stronger, much higher,” she says. “For the last two years, at least once every three months part of our islands become inundated with sea water.”

This flooding has caused freshwater springs to become brackish and water holding tanks contaminated, leading to outbreaks of disease. Kiribati’s scant agricultural land is also becoming salinized, limiting its productivity.

Kiribati has joined with other island nations, including the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and the Maldives, in demanding action on climate change at UN-organized conferences under the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Ambassador Iuta says that they consider the Paris Accord “something of a victory” in that world leaders are finally committed to making changes.

Taiwan is helping Kiribati deal with some of the impacts of climate change. Mackay Memorial Hospital has dispatched teams of medical professionals to provide treatment for patients and training for Kiribati medical staff, and agricultural teams are helping with techniques for growing crops in salinized soil. Taiwan has also provided solar lamps for residents of Kiribati’s outer islands, and is discussing the supply of solar-powered desalination plants. The island is also working with academics from around Asia in brainstorming ideas for elevating peoples’ residences above surge lines or building seawalls.

“We always point out that Taiwan is one of the countries making great contributions to development and adapting to climate change,” adds Iuta. “We urge that the UNFCCC recognize Taiwan as a formal observer.”

Still, Iuta appeals to Taiwan and the rest of the world to lower emissions, even if means such sacrifices as sometimes turning off the air conditioner. “For those of us on the frontlines, will we be able to keep our lands, keep our culture, enable our children to live on the land, and be someone with an identity?” she asks. “We are fighting for our survival.”