Friday, March 16, 2007

A long overdue clean-up in the Pacific

The LA Times ran this nice story about WWII veteran Leon Cooper who has been lobbying the US government to clean up the polluted beaches of the Tarawa, the site of bloody battle in 1943, and now the capital of Kiribati.

I spoke with the Times reporter about the causes of pollution on the crowded atoll and offered some graphic descriptions of beaches ("civilization after the apocalypse", the most extreme statement always makes it in the story, c'est la vie).

The beaches in the southern half of Tarawa, where the battle was fought, and where nearly half of all the i-Kiribati live, are not a pretty sight. For a detailed description an photos of Tarawa, check the dispatches on my home page.

Now, before condemning the i-Kiribati for polluting their backyard, and the site of a bloody WWII battle, it's worth asking how the problem evolved.

The i-Kiribati's traditional waste management system, like that of all indigenous groups in the Pacific, was simple but effective. All the waste, human and otherwise, was organic. It was swept under the coconut trees, where it regenerated the soil, or it was, ahem, deposited on the beach below the high tide line. Go there today , and you will still see people sweeping the ground in front of their huts like in the old days.

But two things changed. First, the influx of packaged goods meant that not all the garbage would biodegrade (in our lifetime). Second, the shift from subsistence living to a cash economy caused migration of people from the outer islands to Tarawa, the capital, and the only place with paying jobs. And more people means more human waste, all concentrated on a narrow atoll. The nutrient pollution from all the waste has degraded the already small supply of groundwater. This then caused a serious human health crisis.

This story is not unique to Tarawa. It is happening all over the Pacific, all over the tropics, all over the world, really, as communities switch from their indigenous lifestyle to a part, albeit a small one in this case, of the global economy.

The good news here is that the new recycling program has dramatically cut plastic and glass waste. And just maybe, the US government will respond to Mr. Cooper's earnest pleas to clean up Red Beach 1 and 2?

No comments: