A weightlifter from Kiribati is our favorite Olympian. After completing a move called the “clean and jerk lift”, he steps away from the barbell and transitions into jubilant dance. He wasn’t celebrating his sixth-place finish in the 105kg weightlifting competition; he’s not aiming for gold on social media. His message is serious, belying the grin on his face. David Katoatau is dancing to save his island nation from climate change.
Most people don’t know where Kiribati is,” Katoatau, 32, told Reuters. His homeland is a Pacific nation formed by 33 coral atolls located about 2,400 miles south of Hawaii. It gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1979. Its land sits about seven feet above sea level. And scientists believe that in 30 years it will be underwater.
“I want people to know more about us, so I use weightlifting, and my dancing, to show the world. I wrote an open letter to the world last year to tell people about all the homes lost to rising sea levels. I don’t know how many years it will be before it sinks.”
Providing potable water for Kiribati’s 100,000+ inhabitants is a more immediate concern than flooding. Rising sea levels increasingly salinate groundwater wells, which are largely polluted by surface run-off and raw sewage. In September a diarrhea outbreak killed more than 20 children in just two weeks. Kiribati kids are nine times more likely to die in their first year than children in the UK.
According to a 2014 story in the Guardian, treated government water reaches some communities, but only runs for a few hours each week. Drought looms; the islands received rainfall just twice in the past two months.
“I beg the countries of the world to see what is happening to Kiribati,” he wrote in his open letter last fall. “In the not too distant future, we will all drown.”
President Anote Tong talks about the future of his nation in the video clip, below. What will happen to his people when the land is gone? A wholesale transplantation of Kiribati to Fiji is a possible solution. In 2014, the Church of England sold land in Fiji to Kiribati for this purpose. Floating islands are another, albeit expensive, option.
Katoatau moved to New Caledonia when he was 16 to train for weightlifting. He used state prize money from his performance at the Commonwealth Games to build his family a home, but a cyclone demolished it. They rebuilt, but he noted, “It’s close to the sea so there is always a worry.”
“I beg the countries of the world to see what is happening to Kiribati,” he wrote in his open letter last fall. “The simple truth is that we do not have the resources to save ourselves. We will be the first to go. It will be the extinction of a race. Open your eyes and look to the other low-lying level islands around the Pacific — they will soon fall with us.”
Image from News.Mic