Kiritimati (Christmas Island):  People and Sustainability

(Picture 0849, A road that runs through the town of London, Kiritimati)

Kiritimati (Christmas Island) is part of the Northern Line Islands in the Republic of Kiribati, a Small Island Developing State struggling to deal with urbanization, development, and climate change. Kiritimati has a land area of 388 km2, which is half of the land area of the nation of Kiribati (ADB 2006, 1). The physical structure of the atoll provides the population of Kiritimati with limited access to fresh water and increases the risk of water contamination, which exacerbates the island’s natural vulnerability to drought. There are very few locations higher than two meters above sea level, making these islands extremely vulnerable to sea level rise. Additionally, traditional subsistence fishing, in conjunction with significant population growth, is stressing fisheries and increasing reliance on imported food, which could have negative impacts for both the people and the environment. The lack of a historical population and recent urbanization increases Kiritimati’s use of natural resources. This compounded by a dependence on food imports, an inability to develop an economy outside of the traditional primary production spheres, and the inherent isolation of the island, suggests that Kiritimati does not have the potential to independently sustain itself. The examination of Kiritimati’s demographics, government structure, economy, tourism industry and status of essential natural resources will provide a better understanding of Kiritimati’s long term potential for sustainability.

Christmas Island, as it was spelled before its independence, was controlled by Great Britain and the United States for strategic purposes during and after World War II. Troops and Air Force personnel from the United States were stationed on the island from 1941 until 1948 (Van Trease 1993, 202). Kiritimati was of strategic importance for the United States because it was a stopping point between Hawai‘i and the military base in Bora Bora (Lal 2000, 585). After World War II the island became an attractive area for nuclear testing. In 1957, Britain began testing atmospheric H-bombs followed closely by the United States in 1962. In 1964, nuclear testing ceased due to the signing of the non-atmospheric nuclear test treaty (Van Trease 1993, 202). The British continued military operations on the island until 1968. Kiritimati gained independence from the United Kingdom on July 12, 1979 when the republic of Kiribati was established (US Dept of State 2010).

Permanent settlement on Kiritimati did not begin until after independence. During the late 1800s and into the 1900s the British leased the land to a series of coconut companies, which led to temporary Gilbertese workers moving to the island. In the 1950s people migrated to Kiritimati because of jobs related to the British and American nuclear testing programs (Bailey 1988, 3). Many of the current residents of Kiritimati migrated to the island relatively recently, and a local source told us that very few people have three generations of family living on the island.

Religion plays a significant role in life on Kiritimati and the largest community groups are formed around churches.  The majority of the population belong to either the Roman Catholic Church (55%) or the Kiribati Protestant Church (36%) (ADB 2007, 12). The churches provide the community with positive social benefits by promoting healthy living, providing workshops on family life, and organizing events for women and youth groups (ADB 2007, 12). More importantly religion is one of the only social organizations on Kiritimati that allows for membership into a larger group, which provides members with a sense of community and purpose.

The demographics of Kiribati illustrate the relative youth of the population. The median age is 20.8 years (CIA, 2010).  37.6% of the population is between 0-14 years, 59% is between 15-64 years, and 3.5% of the population is 65 years and older (CIA, 2010). There have not been any significant changes in median age or age structure since 2001 when the median age was 20 and the percent of the population under 15 years was 40% (Thomas 2003, 5).

The growing population of Kiribati is disproportionately concentrated on a small number of islands. Kiribati consists of thirty-three coral atolls, of which twenty-three are inhabited. As of July 2009, the population of Kiribati is estimated to be approximately 112,850 (CIA 2010). This population is not equally distributed amongst the twenty-three islands, as close to 93% of the population is concentrated on the Gilbert Islands, specifically on the urbanized government center of South Tawara (Thomas 2003, 5). This is partially due to a rural-to-urban drift that began in 1995, as people from the outer islands migrated to South Tawara for work and educational opportunities; this caused a 5.2% annual increase in the population of South Tawara (ADB 2006, 1). From 1947 to 2005 the population of South Tawara increased from 1,671 to 40,311 (ADB 2006, 1). This large population resides on 16 km2 of land area, mostly in highly urbanized areas (Thomas 2003, 5). As a result, the government created population control policies and resettlement programs to slow population growth and attempted to disperse the already existing population on less densely populated islands. In 2005, Kiritimati had a population of approximately 5,000 with a population density of 8.5 people per km2 making it an attractive resettlement location (Iroan 2006, 17). In recent years the population of Kiritimati has been increasing by approximately 500 people a year, causing local officials to estimate that the current population is between 8,000 to 9,000 people (Witting 2010). If the growth rate remains constant the population will reach 11,300 by 2015 (ADB 2007, 14).

As of 2008, populations residing in urban areas made up 44% of the population of Kiribati, and there has been an increase in health problems associated with urbanization and development, including non-communicable diseases like diabetes, gout, hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, and cancer (Iroan 2006, 6).  There are questions about the ability of the government to effectively educate the population about family planning.

This rapid increase in population intensifies the stress placed on natural resources. Water is a limited resource in all atoll island environments. Rainfall is sporadic and droughts are common on Kiritimati making it difficult to sustain a large population on the island. Due to the physical structure of the atoll, fresh surface water is not available. The ground water source is from a Ghyben-Herzberg lens that is created from rainwater filtering through the porous soil where brackish freshwater floats over denser saltwater. The quantity and quality of the available water are important for the sustainability of a population on an atoll. Lack of a freshwater supply has made it very difficult to make Kiritimati a sustainable living environment. The main sources of water are from piped reticulated systems (84%), rainwater (32%), closed or open wells (38%), and bottled water (2%) (ADB 2009,16). There are multiple windmills in Kiritimati, put in by the Australian Agency for International Development, that are used to collect groundwater and distribute it to residents. However, the windmills are insufficient and poorly maintained. Driving around the atoll, there were multiple canisters in neighborhoods that were being used to collect rainwater. The main problem with this method is the lack of rain on the island. Despite this, attempts are made to collect the little bits of water that are available.

(Picture 0819, A windmill on Kiritimati)

Poor waste management, which is common in Small Island Developing States can contaminate water sources. Water contamination has already occurred in South Tawara due to unmanaged population growth and rapid urbanization, which allowed for sewage contamination of groundwater sources (Thomas 2006, 3). Kiritimati needs to create adaptation plans to prevent degradation of their ground water sources. This can be done through diversifying water resources, including the managed utilization of ground water sources and a more efficient system of rainwater catchment and storage (Kuruppu 2009, 799). It is important to note that there are non-climate change stresses, like urbanization, as well as climate change stresses, like drought, which threaten the island’s water resources. Poor waste management and uncontrolled population growth ultimately increase the vulnerability of atoll islands like Kiritimati and significantly limits their ability to sustain themselves.

(Picture by Bushnell and Morrow: Open dump on Kiritimati)

On Kiritimati the most common form of waste disposal is in an open dump, an authorized and official location. (SPREP 2009, 26). These dumpsites are a public health and environmental hazard (SPREP 2009, 26). However, creating a landfill with consistent collection and transportation of waste is difficult to achieve due to lack of enforcement and funding (SPREP 2009, 26). According to the Pacific Regional Solid Waste Management Strategy 2010-2015, Kiribati still needs to make serious achievements regarding their waste management practices. The plan states that priority needs to be given to achieving sustainable financing, intergraded solid waste management, and capacity building (SPREP 2009, 22). If Kiritimati does not improve their sewage and garbage waste management plans there is a possibility of contaminating what little ground water is available and putting the growing population at risk. Another growth area for Kiribati is the development of both a regional and national 4R strategy by 2011 (SPREP 2009, 28). A 4R strategy focuses on management options that include reducing, reusing, recycling, and recovering waste. Furthermore, by 2013 Kiribati needs to assess and determine the potential for new recycling methods like the use of crushed glass in construction (SPREP 2009, 28).

Natasha Kuruppu and Diane Liverman’s study, “Mental preparation for climate adaptation: the role of cognition and culture in enhancing adaptive capacity of water management in Kiribati” examines people’s understanding of the risks of climate disruption regarding water resources and what their understanding means for adaptive changes in behavior. Kiribati began formal adaption planning in 1995 following the ratification of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This study examined how the government attempted to educate people about the risks of climate change and discern observable changes in behavior. Despite the fact that this study did not specifically cover Kiritimati, this information is both interesting and relevant to sustainability in Kiritimati. The study reported that adaptation measures that would increase resilience in droughts and times of little water are overlooked and money is spent on other items like motorcycles, refrigerators, and TVs. This suggests a potential shift in values and an increase in western values. Though the study does not include Kiritimati, it does focus on other islands in Kiribati and represents the trajectory of the path that Kiritimati could take if population and urbanization continues unchecked.

The capital of the Republic of Kiribati, where most government buildings and decisions are made, is Tarawa. The Constitution of Kiribati, which is the supreme law of Kiribati, came into effect on the day of independence and declares that Kiribati is a Sovereign Democratic Republic (Taylor & Francis Group 2004, 2459). The national government consists of three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The executive branch is headed by the president who is elected to a four-years term.  The current President is Anote Tong, who was re-elected in 2007.  The President chooses a 12-person cabinet, with members chosen from The House of Parliament. The legislative branch consists of the House of Parliament, which holds 46 seats. 44 of the members are voted in by popular vote, while the other two are reserved for the attorney general and somebody elected by the Rabi Council Leaders, who represent Banaba Island. Each member serves a four-year term. The judicial branch consists of the Court of Appeals which has 26 members. These members are appointed by the President (CIA 2010).

Tension between Tarawa and Kiritimati exists because of the extreme distance between the two islands, which are approximately 3,312 km apart. Reliable transportation and a seeming lack of interest in Kiritimati has left residents feeling neglected. Despite investing millions of dollars in Kiritimati in recent years, “it seemed that government headquarters in distant Tarawa was not interested in Line Island affairs or developments... the fact that [the various projects] usually failed seemed to indicate a lack of interest and commitment from Tarawa” (Van Trease 1993, 209). Shipping costs have consistently been an issue between the capital and Kiritimati as well. Connections between the two islands are very inconsistent because companies are not interested in making the unprofitable trip. The only way to get a shipping company to visit is to support it through government subsidies. Kiritimati has few exports, so there is not much benefit for Tarawa to subsidize shipping to the island, but transportation is necessary to bring in imports and materials for development projects. A long-term situation is needed in order to make the shipping between the two islands more efficient and affordable (Van Trease 1993, 213).

Many businesses in Kiritimati are state owned enterprises (ADB 2006, 12). An example is the main hotel on the island, the Captain Cook Hotel. Most of these businesses are operating at a loss, but they are very important to the economy as they create jobs for the residents (ADB2006, 12). 10% of the people work for the public sector and a majority of the others are involved in subsidized farming or fishing (PITIC 2010).  Air travel is very difficult to sustain. Since 1991, the Kiribati government has posted an annual loss of A$500,000 subsidizing flights between Hawaii and Kiritimati, which are inconsistent and frequently cancelled  (Van Trease 1993, 215). This lack of reliability has led to problems in the tourism industry because it is difficult to book flights to the area; exports such as milkfish, which is exported to Hawaii, cannot be shipped without the air flights (Van Trease 1993, 209). The isolation of Kiritimati makes it difficult to participate in the global economy.

There is a large gap between the amount of exports from and imports into Kiribati. In 2006 around A$8 million was exported and A$87 million was imported (PITIC 2010, 3). The main revenue on Kiritimati comes from exporting copra, fish, and coconut oil. Imports include food, live animals, machines, transport and equipment, manufactured goods, mineral fuels, beverages and tobacco (PITIC 2010, 3). Oil is an important import as there is no fuel source on Kiribati.

Currently, copra is the main export of Kiritimati. However, in order for the copra industry to survive, government subsidies are necessary. Due to its isolation, freight costs are very high, which add extra costs to the price of copra from the island—much higher than other areas that produce it (Van Trease 1993, 209). The subsidy covers 25% of the selling price (ABD 2006, 31).

Another reason for the copra subsidy was to attract more employees into copra production and ultimately decrease the stress of fishing on the natural environment. Since Kiritimati does not have the resources to sustain and feed a population, overfishing on the island has become a very big concern. Also, the subsidies allow residents to enjoy a higher standard of living with their increased salaries. Studies done by researcher Sheila Walsh show that the copra subsidy had the opposite effect on fishing. She has concluded that the higher salary allowed the residents to work less because they could earn enough to cover their expenses quicker. Unlike many Europeans and Americans, the residents of Kiritimati do not strive to earn as much money as they can, because they do not have the same access to commercial products and there is only so much on which they can spend their money.

There have been many people who have tried to exploit the fisheries of Kiritimati for economic gain. The Gilbert and Ellice Islands Development Authority attempted to bring brine shrimp as an industry to Kiritimati. They spent a lot of money funding the excavations of a network of fishponds throughout the island. Because most of the funds were used in the excavation process, they began to produce the brine shrimp without any testing. Only when they were completed did they learn that brine shrimp could not, in fact, be produced in the fishponds. Milkfish took them over, which were then exported to Hawaii (Van Trease 1993, 202). The ability to export the milkfish to Hawaii, who in turn exported them elsewhere, was due to the regular air service between the two islands. Eventually, the air service could not be relied upon and ended up hurting the industry (Van Trease 1993, 209).

Another revenue producer of Kirbati is offshore fishing licenses. Kiribati has benefited greatly from its Exclusive Economic Zone, which is very large due to the vast area across which the islands are spread. This particular area is very attractive because it is located within the migration paths of tuna. Kiribati is a member of the Forum Fisheries Agency, which has agreements with the United States and the European Union (MFAT 2010). They also have signed bilateral fishery agreements with Japan, Tawain, the Republic of Korea, and Spain (MFAT 2010). In 2009 they joined the “Parties to the Nauru Agreement” with other central Pacific countries to help promote sustainability in the tuna industry and to increase the revenue share associated with the tuna fished by foreign countries (MFAT 2010). The government of Kiribati gets paid based on the amount of stock that is taken, so the income associated with the licenses varies each year. This makes events such as La Nina and El Nino significant when it comes to the amount of money earned, since it effects the tuna population.

(Picture 0845, Sign for the Captain Cook Hotel)

Kiritimati has long attempted to establish itself as a tourist destination. Unfortunately, disruptions and inconsistency with flight schedules from Honolulu to Kiritimati have made it difficult for the island to exploit the tourism industry to its fullest extent. Kiritimati, for the most part, attracts very wealthy individuals who are able to afford the expensive costs necessary to participate in sport fishing (Van Trease 1993, 209). Most of these tourists have demanding work schedules, which means they have to plan their trips far in advance. Due to the spotty airline service this was sometimes not possible and as a result potential tourists were not able to make the trip.

The first tourists came to the island in 1980 and stayed at the Captain Cook Hotel (Van Trease 1993, 203). These tourists consisted mainly of sport fishermen and the occasional bird watcher. Kiritimati is a favorite destination of sport fishermen because of the wide variety of game fish that are available, especially the bonefish, which is the most popular fish to catch; other species include yellow fin tuna, sail fish, marlin, wahoo, baracuda, and trevally. There have been multiple world records for trevally caught from Kiritmati Island (Van Trease 1993, 203). A boost to the industry came when a dozen 24-foot flat boats were constructed on the island thanks to aid from Australia (Van Trease 1993, 203). Despite varying levels of success in the tourism industry, it still has a positive effect on the economy. The Captain Cook Hotel, which is a state-owned enterprise, provides employment for about 60 I-Kiribati (ADB 2006, 12). These employees work not only within the hotel but also act as fishing guides, boat operators, drivers, and mechanics (Van Trease 1993, 203).

In conclusion, Kiribati and Kiritimati are struggling to determine their role in a globalizing world. The inherent isolation of Kiritimati in the middle of the Pacific Ocean makes it difficult to participate in the global economy. Kirtimati is 2,5000 km south of Honolulu, Hawaii, 2,700 km north of Tahiti, and 3,312.5 km from South Tawara, the government capital (Ioran 2006). These significant distances illustrate the isolation of Kiritimati from other islands in Kiribati as well as other nations in Polynesia. Furthermore, the separation from Tawara makes it difficult for the people living on Kiritimati to communicate with the government. It is clear that island cannot continue to develop and grow at the present rate; the government needs to make sure that what happened to South Tawara does not occur in Kiritimati as well. Additionally, as the Australian-funded windmill project and extensive involvement from the Asian Development Bank illustrate, if foreign aid was to decrease or disappear there would be serious ramifications for life on Kiritimati.

Cloe Bushnell, Colgate University 
Nicholas Morrow, Northeastern University


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