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A tiny atoll faces climate challenge with optimism


The highest point on the Pacific atoll of Tarawa is only about 10 feet above sea level. “We joke that it’s like a big speed bump — here we go over Mount Tarawa!” says Ruth Cross, who grew up on the atoll, the capital of Kiribati (pronounced KEER’-uh-bas). Like many low-lying island nations, Kiribati is under threat from climate change as rising seas increasingly infiltrate wells. Yet, its people maintain a sense of optimism, resilience, and even humor. “There’s too much to love,” Cross, a member of the Rotary club of Tarawa, explains of her homeland.

Ruth Cross

Photo by Mark Lehn

Cross, a community leader who specializes in climate finance and development work, is among those assisting the islands in adapting, including by helping lead a water desalination project. The climate concerns have converged with other challenges, including disease prevention. Drinking from wells contaminated through flooding, for instance, has made people, especially children, vulnerable to disease, Cross says.

Led by Rotary Zone 8 and UNICEF, the Give Every Child a Future project is helping by immunizing 100,000 children and adolescents in Kiribati and other Pacific island countries against rotavirus, HPV, and pneumococcal disease. “As a developing country, we’re not at the stage where we can do that” on our own, says Cross, who has helped facilitate the project as her club’s charter president. “Projects like this are so important, because if Rotary didn’t do it, it wouldn’t happen. It’s that simple.”

Cross, who worked in Australia for about 20 years before returning to Tarawa, is optimistic as islanders adapt to climate threats and other challenges. “There’s a practical sense of acceptance and resilience,” she says. “People are living their lives and praying for the best.”

This story originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.

Members of the Environmental Sustainability Rotary Action Group can help your club or district plan environmental projects and publicize your efforts.