The day I speak to Reverend Maleta, rain is drumming on the tin roof of her office and the tiny island of Kiribati has been cut in half by king tides. Emergency radio announcements have warned people to stay at home – flooding has made it too dangerous to travel. Neither of us know it yet, but within days Kiribati, Tuvalu and especially Vanuatu will be devastated by Tropical Cyclone Pam, the ‘monster’ of the Pacific. Whole communities will be flattened, families left homeless and on Kiribati, storm surges will once again inundate homes and the local hospital.
Maleta, what kind of impact has changing climate had on your homeland?
“The main problem is the rising sea – it comes over the sea walls that we build (*as protection) and floods the roads, leaving potholes and making it dangerous for driving. Some children don’t go to school anymore because of the road. The water comes into people’s homes. The land is so low and flat that there’s nowhere to go when a high tide comes. When we have a king tide like this one the flooding is terrible.”
What kind of damage have you seen as a result of extreme and changing weather?
“The hospital for example is full of water right now. The sick people have all been moved somewhere else. It’s only new and was built by the Australian Government for our people but it’s flooded again. But other damage is to the crops. Salt water destroys our food. And it also comes up from under the ground and poisons our drinking water so we have to rely on water from tanks. We had a drought that meant we could only drink water flown in by the Australian and New Zealand governments.”
What makes you think these weather events are the result of climate change?
“We see the king tides coming more often and the storms are worse and more frequent. The coral reef is slowly being destroyed and the fish not as many as before. We know that we are not the only small islands experiencing these things. The sea is warming and we see the impact here because we are so close to the level of the ocean.”
How do people respond to all this going on around them?
“Our people experience all this for themselves – the changes in weather cycles, the flooding that comes more often, the tides and storms. There is absolutely no question that change is happening. But we have been taught to be people of great faith. People believe God will save them, even as they experience great distress. When I speak to them of the need to adapt, of changing climate, it falls on deaf ears. Sometimes they say I am scaring them when I talk to them about climate change, or that I don’t have enough faith. Maybe a bit like Jesus, a prophet is not very welcome in their own town? So we need a lot of help to explain to people that climate change is real, but it’s not God’s fault, it is a problem made by humans and humans need to make a response to it. People feel quite stressed and worried because they believe in God but they also see all these things happening and it makes them question what is going on and where is God in all this?
What do you think is the best way to help people cope with all this change and also encourage them to act on Climate Change?
“The situation is life and death for us. Our President has bought land in Fiji for us to try and grow food when we can’t grow our own; we don’t want to be forced to leave Kiribati. But it starts with people accepting there is a problem and this requires us to educate people about the fact that climate change is real and we must act in response. And this is where we need help. To begin with we desperately need more Bible study material and more teachers to help us understand what the Bible has to say about where God is, how we should look after the environment and what we should do. This is the only way people will begin to act for themselves in response to what is happening. We start here, with the Bible. It’s the foundation of our work because it’s the foundation of people’s belief about how the world works. If we can convince people here, we can motivate them to act and reassure them for the future.”
Many people in Australia find it hard to imagine that the Bible is such a powerful motivator for action in the Pacific. How can we understand this better and help out with this?
Our people have a very strong faith – most people are very strong Christians and the church is a very important part of life. Church leaders are important. The younger leaders are very supportive of climate change response, adapting our lifestyles and planning for the future. Some of the older people just believe that God will take care of everything for us. But we know we can not continue to do nothing.
Our homes are always being destroyed and one day we may need to leave and how will people cope with such changes? So we need more resources to help teach people and this is where people in Australia can help, by supporting our projects to train people, to care for the people pastorally when they are in need, to look at what needs to be done so we can survive here. We don’t want to leave but we may have to. Perhaps we could have Australian lecturers come and train our people too – sometimes people are more likely to listen to outsiders. And we would like to come and speak to your people too, to tell them what is happening for us. But we don’t have money to do all this. That is how you could help us.”
At the request of Maleta and other Pastoral Workers in the Pacific, UnitingWorld is helping people wrestle with a spiritual crisis in the Pacific as they respond to devastating changes. Our approach is to support the leadership of the Church as they care for communities pastorally and practically.
Please help us fund this project. Donate here.
How your support will help.
$40 could help a family access pastoral care and trauma counselling
$55 could prepare communities for resettlement
$80 could provide teaching to encourage communities about the presence of God and a biblical understanding of justice, stewardship and the environment
$200 could complete risk assessments for communities in danger of extreme weather-related disaster.