Social Dynamics in Coastal and Marine Areas

Climate change adaptation gone wrong – The case of sea walls in Kiribati
- by Silja Klepp with photographs by Barbara Dombrowski

Islands are recognized as uniquely exposed to climate change, now and in the future. Anthropogenic climate change
challenges for island inhabitants include issues of water security, salinization of groundwater, stronger tropical-cyclone
impacts and shoreline erosion and coastal flooding due to sea-level rise. Kiribati consists of 32 coral atolls and reef
islands, as well as the   raised limestone island Banaba. Current studies suggest that two thirds of the land is less than
2 m above mean sea level and maximum elevations are roughly 3 m. Adding to the risks for island communities created
by anthropogenic climate change are a multitude of socio-economic vulnerabilities in Small Island Development States,
such as Kiribati. These vulnerabilities are linked to the (post)-colonial structures and dependencies that persist, in various
forms, until today. Among other factors colonialism and globalization processes brought a change in lifestyles and a loss
of local ecological knowledge and adaptation possibilities “Island Style”.

Ausblick Flugzeug Strand

Coastal protection measures can be well suited to immediately protect coastal assets from inundation and protect from
land loss during high water events. They can be divided into three categories: ‘hard’ protection measures, ‘soft’
measures, and retreat or migration. Hard measures include land reclamation and physical barriers like sea walls.
Sea walls in Kiribati are normally built from coral rock, sand bags and concrete blocks. They represent most of the
engineered coastal structures in South Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati. Most solutions for climate-change adaptation in
Kiribati have been short-term, reflecting a dependence on project based and limited assistance from donor countries
and a preference by consultants, engineers and many I-Kiribati for visible, technical “solutions”. In Kiribati, there is rarely
sufficient data to adequately inform the design and positioning of ‘protective’ structures.

Coastal erosion Sandsäcke am StrandBigpacks Bigpacks

Sea walls that are built in a wrong way, with cheap material and potentially in the wrong location can have disastrous
consequences, invariably marked by the degradation of structures like sea walls and irreversible negative impacts.
These impacts range from beach narrowing and beach loss to nearshore ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss,
which might also threaten food security for coastal inhabitants. Expensive, hard measures require regular maintenance;
which is rarely provided by international cooperation that pays for the structures. There are so many broken, aid-funded
sea walls, roads, and water systems in South Tarawa that a report labelled the atoll a “graveyard of shortlived infrastructure

Research shows that traditional knowledge and coping capacity on islands is likely to help people better adapt to future
climate change. In addition to localized knowledge, it is important for those on islands involved in environmental
governance to be aware of their unique attributes and specific local and regional environmental contexts. And, maybe
most important, is to replace the commonly one-way direction of adaptation measures with genuine interaction in which
both external agents and target communities have at least equal say in the design and implementation of adaptation

Seawall Seawall
Based on texts written by Simon Donner (Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada) and Patrick Nunn
(University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia).