SENDAI, Japan, March 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Worsening extreme weather and rising sea levels are threatening to wipe out much of the Pacific island state of Kiribati within a decade, its president warned on Tuesday.
After destruction wrought by surging waves during high tides earlier this year, the nation of 100,000 people living across 33 coral islands was pounded late last week by Cyclone Pam, which tore through Vanuatu, leaving at least 11 dead.
No fatalities have been reported in Kiribati, but the storm damaged homes and public infrastructure, cutting off communications and fuel supply lines to islands in the south, President Anote Tong said.
"This is a new experience for us," Tong told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview on the sidelines of a U.N. summit in the Japanese city of Sendai, where governments are due to adopt a new global plan to reduce the risk of disasters.
Straddling the equator and spread over 3.5 million sq km (2 million sq miles) of otherwise empty ocean, Kiribati's islands have an average height of just 2 metres (6-1/2 feet) above sea level.
It is not located in the hurricane belt and so is unprepared for storms, having focused more on dealing with the impacts of rising seas due to climate change, the president said.
Earlier this month, tidal surges called "king tides" inundated five islands in Kiribati, impacting most the Marakei Atoll, with approximately 44 homes damaged and evacuees sheltering in community halls, according to the United Nations.
Another king tide is forecast to wash ashore at 2 metres high on March 20, said the Red Cross.
Kiribati has built sea walls to protect the shoreline against erosion, and bought land in Fiji to grow crops and potentially relocate people.
But when Cyclone Pam roared by a few days ago, it suggested the president's worst fears could be realised.
"I had always been concerned that if there was to be a change in the weather pattern and... the hurricane-free belt no longer remains hurricane-free, that would be very, very disastrous for us," he said.
"If we had a sustained storm with (high) tides, there could be a lot of islands that will be wiped out... Within the next five to 10 years, I don't think there will be much left."
PREPARING FOR MIGRATION
Tong said the country is being considered for advancement from its standing as one of the world's least developed countries.
"But what has happened recently is going to push us right back - and... the increasing impacts of climate change will keep pushing us back," he said.
People are leaving their homes in growing numbers and finding it harder to grow food as groundwater turns saltier, he said.
"With the projected rise in sea level, there is no doubt that in the years ahead the ability of our people... to be accommodated on the declining land mass is going to be severely affected," Tong said.
Kiribati has mulled building up the level of its islands, but lacks the resources and materials to do so. In addition to buying 6,000 acres (2,400 hectares) of forest land in Fiji, the president has considered constructing a floating island.
Meanwhile under its "migration with dignity" policy, Kiribati is trying to educate and train its people, so they can find decent work if they choose to move abroad.
Tong expected the government would come under rising public pressure to protect the population after the extreme events of the past few months.
Most people do not want to leave the country because "we are not a wandering people", he said, but the reality of the threats to Kiribati's existence could not be denied.
"We cannot keep saying we will stay on... Eventually people will have no choice."
(Reporting by Megan Rowling, editing by Alisa Tang)