Millennium Island greets Y2K warmly
Thursday, December 30, 1999

By Associated Press

When the world focuses on Kiribati, the first country to enter the year 2000, locals hope to draw attention to global warming and the resultant danger the tiny island faces of being swallowed by the sea.

Just west of the international date line, Millennium Island is the easternmost of Kiribati's 33 islands and will be the first place to enter the year 2000. But people here fear their future may be short-lived, as rising sea levels caused by the warming trend threaten to inundate the South Pacific island group, which they say is gradually disappearing under the waves.

"If nothing is done we believe that this island will submit after 25 to 30 years," said Bwere Eritaia, a government environmental officer.

Islanders hope their role in the millennium ceremonies will alert the world to steps that could be taken to control the emission of greenhouse gases that scientists say cause global warming.

Millennium Island has not been permanently inhabited for almost 100 years. But a group of 70 local singers and dancers sailed from the main island of Tarawa with Associated Press Television News to the atoll to perform, and President Teburo Tito arrived Wednesday in order to attend ceremonies for the first sunrise of the new era.

"My message for that particular moment when the sun is rising is to remind all our brothers and sisters out there in the world that here comes the new sunrise of the new millennium," Tito said before arriving at Millennium Island. "And that this must remind us that we have to keep the faith in tomorrow."

Fishing is the lifeblood of this traditional Micronesian culture, and the community's survival through the centuries has always been directly linked to the harvest of the ocean. Now its future is threatened by these same blue waters.

Parts of Kiribati (pronounced Kih-rih-bus) are already inundated at high tide. Houses are falling victim to erosion caused by the sea. The fragile supply of groundwater is already at risk from other sources of pollution.

"The problem (is that) the sea will come into our water lands and all the vegetation will die out, and the people cannot find anywhere to get our fresh water for drinking," Eritaia said.

Many of the islanders are Roman Catholic. Hoping that God can help them in their hour of need, they offer prayers and psalms in the hope they will help avoid impending disaster.

Most scientists agree that greenhouse gases — from burning coal or car exhausts, for instance — are to blame for the warming of the earth's surface. They fear a dangerous rise in sea levels and flooding in coastal areas, coupled with devastating drought in dry areas and disruption of fragile ecosystems.

"We, the Kiribatese people, want the developed nations of the world to reduce their amount of (greenhouse) gas emissions so that the problems of sea level rise will not have too much a dramatic effect upon us," said fisherman James Aun.

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