Charles J. Hanley / Associated Press – 2004-05-23 07:55:16
TARAWA, Kiribati (May 13, 2004) — On the beach at “Bloody Tarawa,” where U.S. Marines died by the hundreds, the broken bottles, crushed boxes, and plastic bags are now piling up by the millions.
Rotting under the equatorial sun, the garbage of an open dump is spreading over a section of World War II’s Red Beach, a strip of sand hallowed in American military history.
It’s a sign of the crisis of solid waste that threatens to overwhelm the tiny atolls of the Pacific, tropical “paradises” whose beauty already is often marred by layers of debris: rubbish with nowhere to go.
Here in Tarawa atoll, a curl of small, narrow, and overcrowded coral islands ringing an aquamarine lagoon, the Kiribati government is making slow progress, opening one trash landfill and building another.
But island governments everywhere say they need more help.
“We urgently need access to effective and affordable technologies, including recycling equipment, before this issue of wastes becomes critical,” Jagdish Koonjul of Mauritius, head of the Alliance of Small Island States, told a U.N. conference in March.
“Our islands are being ‘wasted,'” warned environmental experts from Fiji’s University of the South Pacific in a report last fall.
Sandy, palmy, steamy Kiribati is among the smallest of small island states — a mere 266 square miles (681 square kilometers) of dry land, often inaccessible, on 32 atolls spread over 2 million square miles (5 million square kilometers) of ocean, midway between Hawaii and Australia.
The shortage of space forces hard choices, like putting the first engineered landfill in a location that had been earmarked for national parkland.
“For a country like us, who don’t have land, we are running out of options,” said Tererei Abete-Reema, Kiribati’s deputy environment director.
In 1997, the option was historic Red Beach, on the lagoon side of the Tarawa atoll’s Betio Island. An area several hundred yards long was designated as a dump.
Rubble in Paradise
Sixty years ago, on Nov. 20, 1943, the U.S. 2nd Marine Division came ashore there to seize Tarawa, in World War II’s first major amphibious assault on heavily fortified Japanese positions.
The Marines’ eventual victory was costly: A mistaken landing at low tide left them exposed offshore on the coral reef, under deadly Japanese fire. More than 3,400 Americans were killed or wounded in four days of fighting. Only 146 of 4,800 Japanese troops and Korean laborers survived.
Bunkers and rusting landing craft still dot the shore and reefs, but history has moved on. The Gilbert Islands, a former British colony, gained independence as Kiribati — pronounced Ki-ra-bas — in 1979, to subsist by selling coconut products, aquarium fish, and licenses to fishing fleets. The impoverished population, meantime, exploded to today’s 90,000.
At least 30,000 are jammed onto 282-acre (113-hectare) Betio — pronounced Bay-sho — many in plywood-and-thatch shacks with no sewage system, with contaminated groundwater, and with the accumulating garbage of Red Beach.
“Aluminum cans alone: They’re throwing away 100 tons of aluminum cans a year in Tarawa,” said Alice Leney of the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific, an aid group helping Kiribati manage its waste.
Plastic bottles, bags, and other packaging are piling up just as fast, at five times the rate of the early 1990s in small island states, the U.N. Environment Program estimates. Even medical waste ends up in the open dumps.
Coconut Shells Biodegrade; Beer Cans Don’t
Islanders blame cultural habit in part. A people who not long ago tossed coconut husks and fish bones out their huts’ back doors are now, in effect, doing the same with waste that is not biodegradable, from beer cans to worn-out vehicles.
“I live near the sea, and when the pile of garbage outside gets too high, I dump it in the sea,” Tenea Taoieta, 29, a fuel depot manager, told a visiting journalist. “Sometimes it washes back up and smells.”
One survey suggested that under half the 6,500 tons of solid waste Tarawa produces each year is carted by town council workers to the government’s six surface dumps. Much of the rest — what isn’t burned — litters the islands in uncontrolled heaps, between houses, along beaches, sometimes to be carried off by the tides and deposited elsewhere.
To contain the Red Beach overflow, a seawall was built at the dump, with loan money from the Asian Development Bank.
That continuing, $10 million bank program has also financed the design and building of the two landfills: one just completed 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) east of Betio on South Tarawa, and the other under construction 4 miles (6 kilometers) farther east on that larger island.
The landfill areas, reclaimed from the lagoon, are holes of a few acres (a couple of hectares) each, ringed by sandbagged walls. The plan is to cover each day’s deposit of trash with a layer of sand until the hole is filled.
The first site already has problems: The Japanese construction company did not install a liner in the bottom to keep lagoon water out and to keep contaminants from seeping into the lagoon.
Planners hope to find a private enterprise to operate the landfills, just as Leney’s foundation hopes to interest recyclers in Kiribati’s unclaimed aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and cardboard. However, potential profits may be too small to justify costly recycling technology and transport costs too great to justify shipping out the castoffs.
In hopes of laying the groundwork, the foundation has launched a campaign — Kaoki Mange! Gilbertese for “Send the Rubbish Back!” — and set up collection points for recyclables.
“We’ve been trying to build a model for atolls and take it to the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu,” Leney said, referring to two nearby island nations.
In a place so poor and remote, “it won’t be easy” to subdue the growing mountains of waste, said environment deputy Abete-Reema.
“We’ll probably stumble,” she said. “It took us almost a decade to get this far.”
For years more, then, scavengers will scramble over odorous mounds at Red Beach, finding poor men’s prizes of worn tires or firewood on a narrow piece of real estate that young Americans once bought at the ultimate price.