UC advisor raises awareness of endangered paradise in face of rising tides

With rising ocean waters, UC advisor brings reality of endangered nations to global audience through 'Humans of Kiribati.'

As the sun sets on a golden chain of coral atolls slowly fading into the Pacific Ocean, the islanders know they have an advocate on behalf of their paradise more than half a world away.

For almost two decades, Michael Roman, academic advisor for University of Cincinnati Blue Ash, spends much of his summer free time living and working in the Kiribati islands to help the people stay in their homeland. Through his media documentaries, publications and presentations, Roman is putting a human face on climate change one lecture at a time around the world.

Roman explains the nation of Kiribati (KEE'-ree-bas in the local language) as a collection of 33 coral atolls scattered across a vast swath of the Pacific Ocean halfway between Hawaii and Australia.

While the harmful effects of climate change seem far off in the future for many developed countries, those changes have been impacting many low-lying atoll nations like Kiribati for decades with interior elevations of no more than six feet at their highest, he says.

Because of increasing glacial melting and warmer global atmospheres, Roman speaks openly about the present risks I-Kiribati (people of Kiribati) face from losing their homes entirely by rising sea levels and growing tidal surges known as king tides.

“As the behemoth storms become more intense and frequent, the violent tides roll in and gnaw the land right out from under their homes, leaving many areas under water and depleting their natural coral filtration systems for freshwater,” says Roman.

Placing blame for climate change, however, is not his goal. His aim instead is to actively spread awareness about the immediacy of the problem because, as he says, “time is running out.”

“It's scary for me to think, but many say Kiribati may be one of the first nations to go. If so, I want the world to know that we once were here. We were happy and we loved everything about Kiribati. If the seas continue to rise at this rate, Florida, San Diego and other coastal cities and states will be next,” he adds.

The latest climate models predict the world’s oceans rising 5 to 6 feet by 2100, completely inundating many of Kiribati’s villages as early as 2050 through the elevated sea levels and increasing storm surges.

“The changes we see today are much faster than anything encountered in Earth’s history. In terms of rate of change, we are in uncharted waters,” Katrin Meissner of the University of New South Wales, Australia, told USA Today. “Climate models appear to be trustworthy for small changes, such as for low-emission scenarios over short periods, say over the next few decades out to 2100, but as the change gets larger or more persistent, it appears they underestimate climate change.”

To many Westerners, the Kiribati islands appear like a fragile paradise with an indigenous population, but as Roman became familiar with the islanders and uncovered their many intricate layers, he says he discovered a warm, robust and talented people.

“I was immediately seduced by the peace and beauty, but my family is what keeps me going back.”

Beginning in 2000 originally as a Peace Corps volunteer, Roman now makes periodic journeys back to the nation, which has impacted his life and continued education. As a Fulbright scholar while a doctoral student, Roman spent 10 months in New Zealand looking at how well Kiribati migrants were adapting to life in a new country.

To help capture the love and passion for his 18 years traveling to Kiribati, Roman is presently writing a book about migrating to this new country as a volunteer, learning a new culture with new experiences and falling in love with it. He calls his book, “‘When there was no money,’ because if you think about it, climate change is the end result of greed, of consumption and money.”

“And when there was no money people connected with people. It wasn’t people connecting to their phones or making decisions based on economic pursuits. Decisions in the village were based on humans relationships,” he adds.

A UC Blue Ash advisor during the academic year, Roman devotes his nights and weekends to spreading awareness through speaking engagements all over the world presenting and preserving the faces, voices and culture of Kiribati.

While speaking to a crowd in UC’s TUC Cinema as part of a recent sustainability conference, Roman shared documentary videos and testimonies by the people for the love of their land, the various prisms from which they see themselves and the reasons for wanting to stay in their homes –– even to the end if it is near.

“As part of a ‘Migration with Dignity’ promotion to help accommodate the more than 100,000 inhabitants in their diminishing land crisis, Anote Tong, Kiribati’s former president, purchased nearly 6,000 acres in Fiji –– an island nation with a higher elevation and more stable shoreline to serve as a refuge,” said Roman.

“However, many I-Kiribati have valid reasons for wanting to stay in their homeland, even as the shores fall away and they are forced to move further inland.” 

No matter where they relocate, Roman says they know they will be second- or third-class citizens in another country. But in Kiribati they are always first class where life is simpler, neighbors help neighbors, people take time to talk to each other, children play outside all day and love is in everyone’s hearts.

“The common denominator here is a strong sense of fellowship,” he adds.

 

From the time he landed in Kiribati as a Peace Corps volunteer, Roman became part of a family in the capital city Tarawa, the home where he has lived for the last 18 years on the island. “Now when I return I truly feel like I’m home again,” he says. “When my service to the country ended in 2002, my commitment to the nation began.”

With each return, Roman witnesses increased amounts of land loss, oceanic expansion, fresh water depletion and growing population densities.

 

“The problem is the land is receding, wiping out many freshwater resources and livable land,” says Roman. “They have a greater need now for desalinating water machines to create drinkable water from ocean water, but they need financial resources to purchase these portable machines.”

One $10,000 solar-powered desalination unit can provide clean water to a whole village on the islands and is part of the impact Roman and the U.S. nonprofit organization, “Kiribati Keepers,” are trying to accomplish for as many islands as they can. 

"High school student SeYoon Yoon helped raise over $13,000 to help Sacred Heart College in Tarawa, obtain a portable water desalination unit from the Marshall Islands," says Roman. "As part of the 2017 Sustainable Development & Social Entrepreneurship session of the Yale Young Global Scholars Program, SeYoon and his co-founders for their nonprofit Echo the Eco closely analyzed the exponentially increasing insecurities in the world as a result of climate change –– ranging from an unstable economy as a result of the death and migration of a stable food source, the destruction of infrastructures as a result of abnormal weather patterns and the rapid decrease of fresh water supply in the Pacific Islands as a result of rising sea levels.

"The thought of people lacking the resource that serves as the basis for all life on Earth stuck with SeYoon, so he and his nonprofit organization decided to do something about it."

Many of the adaptation efforts for seawalls made of sandbags have been counterproductive and are causing more erosion, says Roman. 

“What is needed are high-tech seawalls built around some of the more populated islands, but they come with a high price tag. I believe that humans are good –– I have to believe we are good. I hope as more people are aware of the threats facing the Maldives, the Seychelles, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Tokelau and Kiribati, humans will act for humanity and we may begin to see humanity change. Though these nations may be the first to go, surely they will not be the last,” he adds.

Some people refer to Roman’s work as "salvage anthropology," with little to no hope for success, but he says he simply believes in humanity's ability to turn the tide before it's too late. 

“It just takes a spark,” he says. “And if sharing human stories from the frontlines can spark other's humanity around the world who knows what can happen.”

 

To learn more about: 

“Kiribati Keepers”

"Kiribati Keepers" Facebook

"Humans of Kiribati"

 

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