Locally-sourced: How Kiribati is shoring up food security and community resilience in the face of global climate change

Source(s): United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
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A group of fishermen hauling in their fishing nets.
Moniruzzaman Sazal / Climate Visuals

In the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, straddling the equator, is the picturesque atoll nation of Kiribati.

Around 120,000 people, spread across 21 atolls, call the small island state home.

From the air, the ring-shaped islands – the rim of ancient submerged volcanoes – are arrestingly beautiful. On the ground, the islands are united by language and century-old traditions, but each also with its own unique ways.

Below the water, a largely pristine oceanic wilderness, punctuated by deep sea trenches and underwater mountains, teems with fish, whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and coral. 

A paradise on the frontlines of climate change

With most islands just 1 to 3 meters above sea level, and with an average width of only a few hundred metres, Kiribati is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Damaging storm surges, more extreme weather, changing rainfall patterns, and warming oceans all pose a serious and increasing threat to the low-lying island nation. 

King tides, a natural part of the tidal cycle, are becoming more prolonged and more frequent, contaminating water, destroying crops, and damaging infrastructure such as roads. In February 2015, a particularly high tide destroyed the hospital’s maternity ward, toilet block, and part of the sea wall built to protect it.

In mid-2022, a prolonged drought led the government to declare a state of emergency. Across the country, the drought impacted access to drinking water and food crops, with a resulting toll on people's health and livelihoods.

Once abundant marine resources are dwindling due to human pressures and increasing sea temperatures. Fish are moving further offshore to cooler waters, reducing fishers' catch size. 

Increasing saltwater intrusion and more extreme weather patterns are threatening already limited agricultural production. Traditional food systems are in decline in favour of imported foods - foods typically rich in fats and sugar and low in nutritional value, impacting the health of communities.

Far-flung islands are left extremely vulnerable, not just to the impacts of climate change but also to other external global shocks, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the impacts of climate change projected to worsen, adaptation is crucial

Enhancing local food security in the context of global climate change

Recognising the challenges, the Government of Kiribati has developed and is now implementing a comprehensive 9-year plan for advancing climate change adaptation and reducing disaster risk. The plan, closely aligned with the national vision for sustainable development, identifies increasing water and food security, including promoting healthy and resilient ecosystems, as one of the plan’s 12 key strategies.

In 2016, the Government launched a project dedicated to enhancing food security in the context of accelerating global climate change. Supported by the Global Environment Facility-Least Developed Countries Fund and UN Development Programme, nine stakeholders from across the government of Kiribati have worked closely with communities on three pilot islands – Maiana, Abemama and Nonouti.

The goals of the project, led by the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Agricultural Development and the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources Development, have been to ensure sustainable management of lands and coastal fisheries, enhance food production and diversification, and improve the adaptive capacity and livelihoods of island communities.

Bearing fruit

Pilot island communities are already seeing positive changes as a result of the project, with enhanced food supply on land and from the sea.

Thanks to sustainable fisheries interventions implemented by the project in cooperation with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research – including the introduction of community-based fisheries management and establishment of Marine Protected Areas – fishermen have observed fish populations near-shore are stabilising or increasing. This has been confirmed by a comprehensive coastal monitoring programme, which has been documenting fish catch and the status of coastal species established by the project.

In addition, the project has improved capacities and access to technologies related to aquaculture such as sandfish farming, mini-hatcheries, and milkfish ponds.

The success resides in a combination of efforts at the national, island, and community levels, not least the adoption of a national fisheries regulation in 2019 that banned unsustainable fishing methods known as “splash-fishing”, as well as fisheries operating during spawn periods nationwide.

With the production and distribution of more than 21,500 food crops for household and school gardening, the average number of crops per village has increased from two crop varieties to more than five. The main crops promoted are native, perennial crops that can better withstand salt-water intrusion - coconut, breadfruit, pandanus, swamp taro, and fig tree.

Support has also included the introduction of livestock and production (poultry and piggery), training related to planting and compost-making, as well as monitoring of crops, and capturing and reviving traditional knowledge for cooking and preservation of food.

The project also supported sustainable land management through community-based beach revegetation and plantation of more than 400,000 mangroves across the three pilot islands.

The lessons learned have contributed to the formulation of a national Guideline for Ecosystem-based Adaptation Management that is expected to further improve adaptive land management.

Research and systems established by the project will continue to contribute to climate action. Improved data and monitoring systems for key sectors and Automated Weather Stations were installed at the three pilot islands, including weather data collection and analysis for weather prognosis and early warnings. 

Project activities in the pilot islands have been informed by research, monitoring, and planning and included awareness and capacity-building of communities in a broad range of areas. Formulation of Island Strategic Plans, islands by-laws, and community-based planning in consultation with island communities and island councils have founded the basis for ongoing sustainable development of the remote islands.

With the world reopening for international travel after COVID-19, island communities may also benefit from their preparations and development of community-based ecotourism and fly fishing tourism.

The project’s contribution to income-generating opportunities, skills development (from boat safety to hospitality focusing on cultural and culinary traditions and handicraft-making), and foundation of cooperatives and small businesses have in particular sought to engage and improve the livelihoods of women.

Looking ahead

"Our island communities are people of the land and sea. They are resilient. Yet change is on our doorstep and to survive and thrive, we must adapt. In this context, this project has made an important contribution to building the climate resilience of particularly vulnerable communities by helping restore the health of our coastal ecosystems, by empowering people with new livelihoods and new skills for food security, and by putting in place the planning and legislation to make a longer term difference.” – Secretary of the Ministry of Lands and Agricultural Development, Mrs. Saitofi Mika

Though the project came to an end in January 2023, pilot island communities will continue to reap the benefits.

Islands Fisheries and Agriculture extension staff, as well as the new Environmental Extension Officers-positions established by the project at the three pilot islands, will continue to support communities to maintain results and progress.

Government stakeholders are planning to replicate project successes in other outer islands, including through the National Coastal Fisheries Monitoring programme and implementation and enforcement of the National Fisheries Legislation and the (draft) Ecosystem-based Adaptation Guideline, including formulation of supportive island by-laws and Island Strategic Plans.

We trust that with the measures introduced under the project, the abundance of fish and seafood near-shore will continue to increase, and the fruits of the crops planted will continue to provide healthy food supplies and livelihoods for communities in many years to come, despite the inevitable challenges of climate change. – Project Coordinator, Ms. Tererei Abete

On the global stage, as the international community urgently moves to a more sustainable zero-carbon future, Kiribati is taking adaptive action, contributing to greater self-reliance, resilience, and nutrition for communities on the outermost islands.

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