By Emma O’Neill

Paradise and poverty

I recently returned from a year living and working as a volunteer in the remote Pacific nation of Kiribati. I was working on an assignment with the Ministry for Environment, Lands and Agricultural Development based on the atoll of South Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands.

Life in Kiribati had elements of idyllic, tropical paradise but also came with a hefty dose of confronting poverty, overcrowding and pollution.  Being in a geographically isolated location provided some time for reflection on the state of the world.

Figure 1: The main (only) road on the island of Aranuka, Kiribati

Figure 2: Traditional outrigger canoes in the Tarawa lagoon

Sea level rise threatens the existence of Kiribati

Despite its isolation, Kiribati is connected to what is happening across the globe in many ways. Of major significance is its exposure to sea level rise. The people on these low-lying atolls are facing a future where they may be the first nation to lose significant land due to sea level rise caused by the greenhouse gas emissions of distant and much wealthier countries.

Figure 3: South Tarawa king tide erosion. Rubbish is dumped on the foreshores by residents to prevent illegal sand extraction. Sand extraction leaves their properties susceptible to be washed away by storm surges.

Living with waste

Another interconnection relates to waste management. With a tiny land area in the most highly populated island of Tarawa there’s not much space for landfills, and isolation means the fundamental components of a functioning waste management system can easily break down. For example, while I was there problems with the hospital’s incinerator led to medical waste being stockpiled behind a sea wall, which was later breached by high tide spreading waste along the coastline that included needles, IV tubes and vials. In other cases, rubbish was deliberately used to try and hold back the rising tide and deter illegal sand mining (Figure 1).

But it’s not just locally generated waste that is the problem.  Even on beaches far from urban centres plastic fragments could be found, washed ashore from thousands of kilometers away. There’s nothing quite like the disappointment of being out on a fishing boat thinking we’d snagged a wahoo or yellowfin tuna, only to reel in a collection of knotted plastic bags!

Figure 4: Land Management Division beach clean up day

A less wasteful future

My time in Kiribati has me looking at South East Queensland with fresh eyes.  We are very fortunate to have functioning infrastructure and support systems that shield us from many of these impacts. Waste management is a complex issue influenced by several interconnected factors – waste collection and recycling services, human choices and behaviour, availability of products and the quality of stormwater infrastructure. There are no quick fixes, but keeping our oceans and waterways clean requires a suite of interventions. Queensland’s plastic bag ban and container recycling scheme are part of this picture that will help to achieve this.