Saturday, September 30, 2017

Tarawa today

Today Tarawa is part of the country of Kiribati (pronounced, Ki-ri-bus) which is one of the poorest countries on the Pacific. Kiribati is a smattering of small coral atolls scattered across an area of ocean the size of the continental United States The highest point in the islands is a whole 3 metres above sea level and whenever there is a tsunami warning many locals on South Tarawa go to the highest point of the island, the sports stadium for protection!

Tarawa has a large lagoon of approximately 500 square kilometres (193 square miles) and a wide reef. Although naturally abundant in fish and shellfish of all kinds, marine resources are being strained by the large and growing population. Drought is frequent but in normal years rainfall is sufficient to maintain breadfruit, papaya and banana trees as well as coconut and pandanus. North Tarawa consists of a string of islets, with the most northern islet being Buariki. The islets are separated in places by wide channels that are best crossed at low tide.On South Tarawa, the construction of causeways has now created a single strip of land from Betio in the West to Buota in the Northeast.

Most I-Kiribati live on South Tarawa (on the map North Tarawa is in yellow, South Tarawa in red).Today, approximately 50,000 people call South Tarawa home making it one of the most densely populated places in the Pacific. The land area of South Tarawa is 3,896 acres (1,577 ha) or 15.76 square km. However, much of this land is not available for use including the water reserve and runway, the causeways, and a large area of reclaimed land at Temwaiku while the eastern corner of the atoll is too swampy and low-lying for settlement. If these areas are excluded, the land area of South Tarawa is only just over 1,000 hectares (10 square km or 2,500 acres) and the population density of 49 people per hectare or 4,905 per square km is almost equal to the density of London (5,100 people per km2) and twice the density of Sydney, Auckland or New York.

Kiribati has few natural resources and is one of the least developed Pacific Island countries. Economic development is constrained by a shortage of skilled workers, weak infrastructure, and remoteness from international markets. The public sector dominates economic activity, with ongoing capital projects in infrastructure including road rehabilitation, water and sanitation projects, and renovations to the international airport, spurring some growth.
South Tarawa is the economic hub of Kiribati, the location of the main port and airport and of most of the State Owned Enterprises and private businesses. Copra produced on the outer islands is processed on Betio, producing copra oil for the international market and other products which are sold locally. There is also a fish processing plant producing tuna for export. However, imports far outweigh exports, and most households on South Tarawa rely on Government employment and remittances from relatives working overseas for their income. Unemployment and under-employment are a serious problem; in 2010 only 34% of urban adults (over 15) were engaged in cash work; the remaining two-thirds are either out of the labour force, unemployed or engaged in subsistence activities. Young people are especially likely to be unemployed and this is a growing problem.

As well as South Tarawa the other main population centre is the eastern island chain of the Line Islands of which Kiritmati  Island (Christmas- no not the one in the Indian ocean full of refugee detained by Australia) is the largest island and is several hundred kilometres to the east.

Causeway linking atolls in South Tarawa
Kiribati is well of the usual beaten track for most tourists and it is experiencing first hand the impact of climate change and is experiencing all sorts of problems due to sea level rise and rapid population growth. Some settlements have been abandoned due to frequent flooding and fresh food, especially fruit and vegetables, are often in short supply due to the salination of the soils, meaning a lot of food needs to be imported. So Kiribati is not your typical South Pacific paradise. In fact the country has purchased land in Fiji in case they are forced to leave their homeland for good!

Why the interest in Kiribati/Tarawa?
So why the sudden interest in Tarawa and Kiribati? Well, as alluded to in the previous post, apart from my general interest in World War Two history, it is because I’m off to live there for a year! I’ve accepted a role with New Zealand’s Volunteer Service Abroad and will be living there for twelve months. It is not going to be easy, no doubt there will be many, many challenges and struggles ahead but I am hoping that the experience will be a life changing one. I've never been a fan of the corporate treadmill so see this as an opportunity to branch out and do something completely outside my comfort zone. I’ve been wanting to do a VSA assignment for many years but it is only now that my kids are nearing the end of high school that I feel the time is right. So recently I applied for a role in Kiribati and am pleased to say that I have been accepted for the one year posting.
I’ll be leaving my wife and kids back home in NZ but due to the isolated nature of Kiribati volunteers have to leave the island every 4 months or so for a week or two break either back home or elsewhere in the Pacific so plan on meeting up with my wife in Fiji every four months or so and hope that other family members will take the opportunity to pop out for a visit to one of the more remote corners of the Pacific.

I’m not sure when I will be going yet, I have a four day briefing in Wellington in a couple of weeks but still have to pass medical checks etc before going so it is still quite a process. I am hoping some time in early January so I can give my current employer plenty of notice and as I’ve some work to do around home first but we will see.

No doubt the year ahead will be fraught with challenges and it will be a very difficult one, but I am really looking forward to the experience, it is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long, long time and intend to create a blog to about my experience.

So, in the next twelve months things will change dramatically for me and wargaming will not really be on my regular radar for quite some time.


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