A former president is worried that his country is sinking into the ocean

  • Anote Tong, former president of Kiribati, believes his country will soon "be uninhabitable" amid rising sea levels.
  • If a sustainable solution isn't found, locals may be forced to relocate and effectively become "climate refugees," he warned.
  • The Pacific nation bought 6,000 acres of land on Fiji in 2014 as a potential refuge for citizens.

Rising sea levels are threatening to put the Pacific island nation of Kiribati underwater, potentially turning its citizens into "climate refugees."

"Our islands will be uninhabitable in the decades ahead," former president Anote Tong told CNBC on Tuesday, warning that chunks of the population may have to relocate as a result.

Despite a tiny carbon footprint, low-lying Kiribati — pronounced Kiribas — could eventually be fully submerged as rising temperatures in the Pacific Ocean lead to spiking sea levels, experts have warned.

The republic, located below Hawaii, is made up of 33 coral atolls. Most islands are less than two kilometers wide with an average height of 1.8 meters, or 6 feet, above sea level, according to the World Bank.

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"If we are to remain on the islands, we have to raise the islands," Tong said, adding that he believed the relevant technology and resources existed "but they're not being made available."

To build climate resilience, the remote nation has consulted foreign governments and companies on land reclamation technology as well as the idea of external floating accommodation.

Tong, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, led the country from 2003 to 2016 and has frequently warned that resettlement may be the last resort to Kiribati's woes.

If the country can't adapt to environmental challenges, "then we have to reconcile ourselves to the brutal reality that some of our people may have to be relocated," he said.

"But we must not wait for that to happen," he cautioned. "Because if we do, then our people will definitely become climate refugees."

Eita, South Tarawa, Kiribati.
Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket/Getty Images
Eita, South Tarawa, Kiribati.

Under Tong's watch, the government bought 6,000 acres of land on neighboring Fiji in 2014 as a potential refuge for its roughly 115,000 residents.

Other remote Pacific island-nations such as Tuvalu face similiar issues, but the risk of environmentally displaced people affects countries from Bangladesh to Kenya.

Weather-related extremes caused 21.5 million displacements annually between 2008 and 2016, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation.