Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Sovereignty for citizenship might help the Pacific

You can’t eat sovereignty, you can’t drink independence, and you can’t build a house in the middle of the ocean.

Climate change effects in Tarawa, an atoll in Kiribati (Photo: United Nations photo/ Flickr)
Climate change effects in Tarawa, an atoll in Kiribati (Photo: United Nations photo/ Flickr)

You cannot fault former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd for a failure of imagination with his recent suggestion of trading sovereignty for citizenship.

You can’t eat sovereignty, you can’t drink independence, and you can’t build a house on a flag floating in the middle of the ocean.

His proposal that the inhabitants of low-lying atoll nations such as Nauru, Kiribati, and Tuvalu be granted Australian citizenship in exchange for their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) resources was, perhaps predictably, shot down by Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga. Sopoaga described the concept as neo-colonialism and insisted on Tuvalu’s right, as an independent state, to its own resources. Instead of exploring, what he called, “imperial thinking”, Sopoaga insisted that developed countries such as Australia focus on cutting carbon emissions as a direct way of fighting climate change.

That is certainly the conventional wisdom, but if the threat of climate change and rising sea levels is as severe as no doubt both men believe, why aren’t all options being examined?

Atolls have always been marginal for human habitation, and that fact is believed to have been one of the drivers behind Polynesian migration eastwards across the Pacific thousands of years ago.

Population pressure, lack of arable land, inadequate waste disposal systems, and above all, the lack of potable water have always been key determinants of the inhabitability of low lying atolls.

From 1960 until 2009, Tuvalu’s population increased from 6,104 to 9,847, Nauru has gone from 4,433 to 10,057, and Kiribati has seen its number of inhabitants rise from 40,700 to a whopping 98,027. Today, with populations in the main urban centres of these nations well above what they have ever been in the past, the more immediate challenges include waste disposal and access to water.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment of the United States estimates it is very likely that the sea level will rise between 30–130 centimetres by the end of this century.

This is certainly a challenge but by no means an immediate extinction-level event.

The problem of disposing of human waste in the most populated islands is perhaps just as challenging.

You do NOT want to swim in the lagoon in the Kiribati capital, South Tarawa. Only a third of households on the island have a flush toilet, with others using either the lagoon or the ocean to dispose of their effluent. As things stand, they’ll drown in their own waste before they drown. Either way, low-lying nations face severe challenges in the future, which is why perhaps outside-the-box thinking such as swapping control over their EEZ for becoming Australian citizens is at least worth considering.

There has been a long history of politicians from the Pacific’s two metropolitan nations being interested in integrating the Pacific in various ways.

Former New Zealand prime minister Richard Seddon was keen to carve out a sort of Kiwi empire in the Pacific around the turn of the 19th century, which eventually morphed into the close constitutional relationships currently operating with Tokelau, Niue, and Cook Islands. Another former New Zealand prime minister, Mike Moore, published an entire book on integration with the Pacific in “A Pacific Parliament” in 1982 – an idea which is still being discussed.

These concepts were based on the view that smaller island nations do not have the resources or human capital to effectively govern themselves as modern nation states and would require varying degrees of external assistance. A view which is not entirely absent in Canberra and Wellington to this day.

It is this context that Rudd’s idea of offering a swap of citizenship for control over EEZ resources should be seen in but perhaps with some added urgency, given the potentially grave nature of some of the challenges. While Sopoaga’s immediate dismissal of the concept is perhaps understandable from a straightforwardly-nationalist point of view, it might be instructive to ask the people in Nauru, Tuvalu, and Kiribati want they think of the offer.

It could be that they are more supportive of exploring the idea than their politicians.

The pressures of rising sea level, population growth, waste disposal, and access to water are real and getting more urgent as time goes on. If they begin seriously threatening the living standards or even the very existence of people in low lying atoll countries, this offer may look a lot less unreasonable.

You can’t eat sovereignty, you can’t drink independence, and you can’t build a house on a flag floating in the middle of the ocean.

If this offer was an opening bid in a renegotiation of the status of the citizens of Nauru, Tuvalu, and Kiribati in the light of expected climate change, they might like to consider it a little more seriously than Sopoaga has.

It may sound cynical, but as time goes on, their bargaining position will probably only get weaker as sea levels rise around them.

Pacific Research Program

You may also be interested in