OceanKnowledge for everyone!

Sculpture of the flag of KiribatiComing from a country which is, imho, totally overregulated, I am not a big fan of rules how individuals should live their lives and how their houses should look like. But driving and walking through South-Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, I desperately wished for some rules and their enforcement.

The population density of South-Tarawa is almost as high as in Berlin, Germany. But without multistoried houses. And much smaller: less than 16 km2. All 56.307 people are living on ground level. Well maybe only 56.300, the remaining seven being the ambassadors or high commissioners from other countries, whose houses actually have a second level. The buildings in South-Tarawa range from make-shift over traditional to so-called “permanent” houses made of stone and some kind of dry-wall. The type of housing is not what I would regulate, though, only their sanitary facilities.

In my world, every household would at least have a toilet with a proper septic tank. In reality, many houses only have a hole in the ground, where the fecal Reclaiming land from the lagoon is a common practicematter leaks through the sand aggregate into the water lens below. Or not even that, but the beach is used as toilet. When walking along the beache, don’t look at the beautiful lagoon or the sunset over the Pacific, but watch out not to step into, well, a big turd. The kid in Bairiki harbor, apparently swimming next to the ferry to North-Tarawa, is actually doing his business there. So is the old man a bit down the beach…

Why would I regulate where people defecate? There are actually two reasons: one is public health. The fecal contamination in the southern parts of Tarawa’s lagoon is impressive, causes diarrhea and other health issues. Please note that many people get their daily protein in form of fish and shell fish from the very same lagoon that they use as a loo. The other reason is the environmental impact. All this human fertilizer is increasing algae growth and kills the coral reef, especially on the ocean side of the atoll. The reef, which like the lagoon provides protein to the South-Tarawians.

Permanent house with rainwater tank The second regulation on my agenda is the solid waste disposal. To be fair, it is regulated, but not enforced. Officially, all organic waste has to be taken care of by composting or burning locally on one’s own land, aluminum cans should be recycled and the rest collected in green garbage bags, which can be bought for 20 cent at every corner store. The bags are to be disposed of at designated areas along the street, where a garbage truck picks them up twice weekly for dumping on one of the two land-fills. So the theory. Practically your nose tells you how often plastic and rubber is burned, your eyes show you the waste of all kind lying on private land, along the roads and the beaches. The garbage truck doesn’t come as regular as it should, so the bags wait for days and weeks to be collected. If their content was all non-organic, as should be, that wouldn’t be much of an issue. But unfortunately it is not. And the food leftovers, like fish and chicken bones, tend to attract dogs and rats, which are quite proficient in tearing the bags apart, adding to the waste along the streets.

My third regulation concerns water supplies. According to official records, two thirds of South-Tarawa’s population gets water through the public water grid. I am not sure this number include the multitude of squatter housings in all parts of the atoll, so the real number might be somewhat lower. The rest of the population uses local wells and sometimes rain water collected from Makeshift house with a well tin roofs. The wells are my concern. I would make a rule that well water cannot be used for drinking when there is an unsafe toilet – one without a proper, uncracked septic tank – in the vicinity. Living this rule would close almost all wells in South-Tarawa and would put more pressure on the public water system and thus the already over extracted water lens underneath Bonriki airport. Or it would force the government to provide alternative water sources, like more rain water collection systems and maybe a seawater desalination plant. But it would also dramatically reduce the cases of dysentery and consequently the infant mortality rate. At a second thought, this is prone to increase the population of the atoll even more, and thus the already severe lack of land.

Kiakia is one name for the traditional houses of coconut wood and pandanus leavesWhich brings me to my fourth and last regulation. The roughly 33 km long road from Betio on one end of South-Tarawa to Bonriki on the other end carries you along the lagoon shoreline, which looks a bit like a Tetris puzzle. (For everyone too young to remember Tetris: an early computer game, where you had to fit dropping angular shapes, creating a solid block with a rectangular zigzag line on top). In South-Tarawa this zigzag line is due to seawalls and small- to micro-scale land reclamation project. When you own or inhabit a patch of land along the lagoon, you might want to increase it. So you just build a seawall a few meters lagoonwards of the high-water line and fill it in with sand, stones and garbage. The wall itself you build with concrete or cement, if you are an environmentalist and have money. Otherwise you just collect coral blocks from the reef to build your wall. Which is cheap and really bad for the island, Are stilted houses the future?because these blocks are acting as natural wave breakers, and removing those from the reef flat means exposing the shoreline to higher energy waves and more severe erosion. Therefore, in my regulated world, the usage of coral blocks for seawalls would be forbidden. And I would encourage neighbors to build their walls together, to make longer sea walls for bigger land reclamation projects. Because a seawall protects the land directly behind (for some time at least) but almost always increases the erosion of the neighbor’s land. So in the end, reclaiming land leads to loss of land, which could be avoided by thoroughly planned shoreline engineering.

Or even better, instead of reclaiming land, I would regulated that new houses cannot be built on land, but have to be built on stilts in the lagoon. With proper infrastructure for solid and liquid waste disposal on land, solar panels for clean energy, and rain water collection for clean drinking water.