With its pristine sands, glistening saltwater flats and gently swaying palms, Kiribati ought to be a tropical paradise – but this precarious slice of heaven on Earth is living on borrowed time.

The low-lying Pacific nation of 33 atolls and reef islands is facing the unstoppable rise of the sea and will be gone before long, making its people the world’s first nation of climate change refugees.

“I’ve been trying to communicate to the international community that we have a problem. It’s a small part of the larger challenge on climate change, but our case is more immediate,” former Kiribati president and climate activist Anote Tong tells AFP.

“We’re at the bottom end of the spectrum, where we are the most vulnerable.
We are on the front line. Before anyone else is affected, we will be.”

Tong, who ruled the isolated nation for 12 years until completing his third term in 2016, is the focus of “Anote’s Ark,” a new film documenting the plight of Kiribati’s 110 000 inhabitants and the struggle for the survival of 4 000 years of Kiribati culture.

Documentarian Matthieu Rytz follows Tong in the later years of his presidency as he travels the world pointing out that his homeland lies barely two meters (6.5 feet) above sea level and the islets are facing an emergency.

‘Incredible story’

“They are most likely to be uninhabitable well within the century, before they disappear,” Tong told AFP at the Sundance Film Festival in the US state of Utah, where “Anote’s Ark” had its world premiere last week.

“Already we have had communities who had to relocate because the village, the community they used to have, is no longer there.

“We have communities where the seawater has broken into the freshwater pond and destroyed food crops.”

“Anote’s Ark” is the first feature film directed by Rytz, a Canadian photographer who was exposed to the plight of the islanders and persuaded Tong to be part of a film.

The documentary follows the statesman on his journey through international halls of power leading up to the 2015 Paris Climate Conference.

“It was an incredible story – a head of state who knows he won’t have a state within a generation,” Rytz told AFP.

The filmmaker was clear from the beginning that he didn’t want to make just another climate change movie following politicians or celebrities at summits around the world.

Instead he weaves Tong’s campaign into the wider story of the people of Kiribati, and we meet Sermery Tiare, a young mother of six who decides to relocate to New Zealand with her family.

Tong, 65, has developed a string of attention-grabbing schemes designed to help his people cope when their homeland is swamped.

Among those strategies is the construction of floating islands, anchored to the sea, that could sustain up to 30 000 people for a century.

‘Huge disaster’

In reality, the project – complete with skyscrapers and resort facilities – would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and Tong understands they will not become reality anytime soon, if at all.

Other options include constructing sea walls, as well as “land reclamation” and the building of artificial islands using sand dredged from the seabed.

During his tenure, Tong bought 2 000 hectares (5 000 acres) of farmland in Fiji, a bigger Pacific Island nation, partly as an investment but also as a possible new home.

He has also pioneered the concept of “migration with dignity” – training islanders mostly used to a fishing lifestyle to give them useful skills in their lives as climate change refugees.

“The science is pretty categorical. It doesn’t take a lot of intelligence to know that based on the projections put forward by the (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) we have a huge disaster coming up,” Tong told AFP.

“We cannot wish it away. And even if the possibility of that coming up is five percent, we cannot remain complacent.”

He describes US President Donald Trump’s announcement that he intended to withdraw the US from the 2015 Paris climate accord on limiting global warming as initially “extremely disappointing.”

He added, however, that he was heartened by reaffirmations of commitment to the agreement at the state, industry and civil society level.

“Governments have a limited ability to address this because governments are led by politicians,” he said.

“Politicians are more concerned about the next election than the next generation.”