On the eve of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I am celebrating. There is only one week until my departure on the Voyage of Kiri, an environmental research trip through coastal Mexico. The maps of Baja and mainland are in my mind, the dusty roads and verdant mountains are starting to take shape – along with the possible encounters we will have: the young entrepreneurs, the elderly in the villages, the cacti and the rabbits. How is the climate affecting them, and their water? What message will they share with the global community, if any?
Although we will travel through Mexico, the inspiration for this trip came from 6000 miles away: a little coral atoll in the Pacific called Kiribati (pronounced Kiri-bas) that is on average less than 10 feet above sea level. As one could imagine, sea level rise is not a curiosity in the morning paper for the 100,000 residents. It is washing out houses with storm-driven surge and it is contaminating drinking water aquifers with salt water. A few of the low-lying uninhabited islands have been submerged.
Water is already scarce on this shallow archipelago-nation, a situation made worse by 50 years of mis-management. Unplanned trash dumps and sewage runoff have leached into the groundwater. Coral mining and blast fishing have inadvertently removed protection from storms – just as filling and destroying mangroves in Louisiana and Thailand turned those areas into sitting ducks for hurricanes and tsunamis.
It is said that earthquakes don’t kill people; the buildings get us. Similarly, climate change doesn’t kill people, it is short-sighted management of resources that can get us. In Kiribati, the situation is so dire that leaders are considering evacuation within the next two decades. Imagine, leaving your homeland due to local ecological failure and global climate change. The jury is still out on who is responsible for this mess.
[For some perspective on the daily life and development issues of Kiribati, see the book The Sex Lives of Cannibals, a funny and somewhat cynical travelogue by J.Maarten Troost]
Not that Kiribati is like coastal Mexico, but its present drama forces us to ask the question: if climate changes and water issues are causing problems elsewhere, are there impacts (subtle, long term, or otherwise) we should be aware of, in our neck of the woods? Can climate and water teach us about running more sustainable societies and conserving resources more wisely?
I remember when the United Nations came to Rio de Janeiro in 1992 for the first Earth Summit – I was in 5th grade at the American School in Rio. The military was on the streets to “keep the peace”, black cars would drive by with delegates, and lots of good rhetoric was written down. Then Kyoto 1998 came and went, with some hot air about reducing greenhouse gases that the US Senate did not buy.
Fast forward 10 years; despite the downpour of citizen groups and media blitz, the hopes hanging on Copenhagen 2009 to come to a climate agreement fizzled. Can we blame them? I mean, have you ever tried to come to agreement with 10 people about anything? Much less 150 heads of state, trying to represent 6 billion people, on an issue central to economic development and wellbeing. The task of reducing greenhouse gases in an immediate manner looks bleak. Nevertheless, we must figure it out.
“Guess where the next climate conference will be held in 2010?”
Cancun will be the host of the next major climate conference. By researching the best practices in Mexico of ecological design, sustainable tourism, and watershed protection, the Voyage of Kiri hopes to show the importance of climate adaptation - finding ways that reduce waste, enhance the resilience of communities, and improve the health of vulnerable ecosystems.
We will meet people in towns such as Punta Abreojos and Bahia Magdalena in Baja, which were hit by hurricanes last year. We will visit coastal lagoons south of Mazatlán, and turtle nesting grounds in the Guerrero coast. The final destination is the ecological resort of Bahias de Huatulco, in the state of Oaxaca.
Along the route, we will also visit our friends at Waterkeeper Alliance groups and Rotary Clubs. The Rotary Foundation kindly provided an Ambassadorial Scholarship to carry out this study - thank you!
For photos and interactive maps, see the homepage: www.voyageofkiri.com
[The Voyage of Kiri is also being covered in the magazine Miller McCune]