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Life in a Harsh Paradise: Surviving Drought on Banaba Island

Banaba Island is lush when there isn't a drought--but every three to four years, all of the island's vegetation dies out. Janice Cantieri.
Banaba Island is lush when there isn’t a drought–but every three to four years, most of the island’s vegetation dies out in the devastating droughts. All photographs by Janice Cantieri.

Drought is a way of life on Banaba—a way of life Taboree Biremon knows all too well.

“My wife and I didn’t eat. We fed the children,” explained Biremon, describing life during a drought that hit Banaba a few years back. “There was no food. We fed the children first, but we were starving. We laughed a lot to show them that there was no trouble—but there was big trouble.”

Biremon, a resident of Tabwewa Village, has lived through multiple droughts in the 25 years he’s spent on Banaba. These droughts happen every three to four years and often last for months on end. During this time, most of the island’s vegetation dies out, including the staple food crops of cassava, pumpkin, and papaya.

“My wife and I didn’t eat. We fed the children.”–Taboree Biremon, who has survived several droughts on Banaba IslandTweet this

Banaba has frequent droughts because it is a high island with no natural streams or underground reservoirs of fresh water, according to Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands. Others have noted that strong La Nina years can induce severe droughts and prevent the normal pattern of rainfall.

The consequences are devastating. For families who practice a primarily subsistence-based lifestyle, malnourishment is a regular occurrence. But the resilient islanders have managed to survive by living like their ancestors did for centuries before regular contact with foreign cargo ships.

With cargo ships arriving only every few months, the village shop often runs out of provisions. Periodic droughts, when no produce grows on the island, compounds those food shortages.
Cargo ships only come every few months to Banaba, and often the village shop’s provisions run out. Food shortages are compounded during periodic droughts, when no produce grows on the island.

The Banabans say that the droughts are difficult to survive today, especially after decades of strip mining by the British Phosphate Commission. The mining not only removed most of the island’s fertile, phosphate-rich soil, but also destroyed hundreds of the more drought-resistant coconut and pandanus trees, significantly reducing the island’s food supply. Replanting on the destroyed land, Banabans say, is nearly impossible.

The mining process also contaminated many of the island’s freshwater caves, which the islanders once relied upon for drinking water during extended periods of drought. (You can read more about the mining, and the islanders’ displacement, here).

Many of the roughly 200 current residents have been living here since 1979, when the the British Phosphate Commision left the island. And while life today is extremely difficult on Banaba, the residents say they are determined to survive in order to protect their ancestral homeland from further mining.

“If we ever saw a coconut floating in the ocean, we had to swim for it…just to get it for food for our children.”–Taboree BiremonTweet this

“It was a drought when I came over to Banaba in ‘91, and it lasted for about two years. There was no cassava and no fruit. We ate just fish and octopus. We boiled the papaya tree because inside there was water,” Biremon said.

“If we ever saw a coconut floating in the ocean, we had to swim for it—even though we had no energy—just to get it for food for our children,” Biremon continued. “But my feeling was that if my ancestors did this, and survived here, I could do it—that is what helped me survive.”

Taboree Biremon has survived multiple droughts on Banaba by eating only fish.

Adding to the already difficult situation is a lack of reliable communication, which often prevents emergency provisions of rice, flour, and medical supplies from reaching the island in times of need. Only one nurse works seven days a week in the island’s medical clinic, and boats to and from the island are infrequent and unpredictable—they usually come only once every few months.

So during droughts, families eat fish almost exclusively, for every meal, every day, for months on end. Some eat the eyes of the fish for water and nutrients. And even though the village is starving, they must gather enough energy to go out and fish every day.

Otimeaua Rabawa, another resident of Tabwewa Village, described a typical diet during the most recent drought.

“We had no food, just fish. We had boiled fish, grilled fish, and raw fish. We had fish to replace our ‘rice’ and our ‘fruit.’”

Still, the Banabans are proud to live on their ancestral homeland. Hard work, a sense of humor, and honor and respect for their ancestors get families through, they say.

“I will die on Banaba,” Rabawa said. “I am proud to be living here on Banaba because I’m living like a real Banaban, like our ancestors.”

 

Janice Cantieri is a journalist and researcher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who has been documenting the stories of displacement and adaptation between the Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Fiji. She has followed the stories of the Banaban Islanders, residents of a phosphate island in Kiribati, who were displaced to Rabi Island in Fiji by the British Phosphate Commission in 1945 and have been separated from their ancestral homeland for the past seventy years. She has also chronicled the stories of i-Kiribati on the Tarawa Atoll, who are currently facing the possibility of migration and displacement to Fiji and elsewhere in the Pacific as the sea level continues to rise and inundate the low-lying islands, which are only 2-3 meters above sea level. Using a combination of written stories, images, and video, her posts have told the stories of the Kiribati people, their culture and heritage, while also documenting the adaptations, challenges, and innovations they have developed in response.