Adapting water resources to climate change in Kiribati: the importance of cultural values and meanings

Adapting water resources to climate change in Kiribati: the importance of cultural values and meanings

environmental science & policy 12 (2009) 799–809 available at journal homepage: Adapting water...

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environmental science & policy 12 (2009) 799–809

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Adapting water resources to climate change in Kiribati: the importance of cultural values and meanings Natasha Kuruppu * Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University Centre for the Environment, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3QY, United Kingdom

article info Published on line 3 August 2009 Keywords: Climate change Water resources Adaptation Culture Small islands

abstract In many Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States, such as in Kiribati, formal national adaptation programmes are currently being operationalised. A key focus is enhancing the adaptive capacity of vulnerable communities through piloting of sectoral adaptation strategies such as diversifying water resources. This study argues that fundamental to water management and adaptation planning is the integration of people’s cultural values attached to the assets/resources they control and utilise in their efforts to adapt to various stresses on water resources. The results from integrating cultural resources into a Sustainable Livelihoods Framework indicate that people’s capacity to diversify is constrained by cultural processes negotiated in their daily lives that reinforced and reproduced hardships. Material resources provided personal significance when they were spent on maintaining social identity, expressed in recent times through the church. Thus fewer resources were available for pursuing a diversification strategy. Furthermore, power structures in the church delimited benefits to the individual, depriving people of their freedom to exercise autonomous agency and achieve personal wellbeing. The study demonstrates the significance of religion to adaptation. Moreover, it highlights the need to consider the relational aspects of assets, in conditioning how people access and utilise assets in pursuing adaptation strategies. # 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.



‘‘Water supply problems on Small Island Developing States (SIDS), such as the Republic of Kiribati are amongst the most critical in the world,’’ as they affect all aspects of people’s livelihoods (White et al., 2007, p. 1522). Kiribati comprises lowlying coral atolls in which surface water is absent and the survival of its people is determined by both the quantity and quality of groundwater found in the form of freshwater lenses. The lenses which consist of freshwater overlaying denser seawater are common to many Pacific Islands and are currently threatened by non-climatic stresses such as a rapid population growth and poor water governance (White, 1996; Metai, 2002).

Moreover, expected impacts of anthropogenic climate change and variability stand to exacerbate existing stresses, further undermining the resource base (IPCC, 2001). Thus, anticipatory adaptation interventions can offer a window of opportunity to achieve greater water security in the future by simultaneously addressing ongoing and potential stresses on water management. Anticipatory adaptation means ‘‘taking steps in advance of climate change to minimise any potentially negative effects or to enhance the ability of society and nature to adapt to changes’’ (Smith et al., 1995, p. 202). For formal adaptation interventions to be effective, many studies have emphasised the criticality of ‘twinning’ adaptation planning with development goals which promote human

* Tel.: +44 1 865 275848. E-mail address: [email protected] 1462-9011/$ – see front matter # 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2009.07.005


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wellbeing (Dowlatabadi, 2007; Pielke et al., 2007). This calls for an understanding of local dynamics that impede and facilitate people’s access to various resources (Reid and Vogel, 2006). However, the study argues that critical to these objectives is the consideration of people’s cultural values and meanings which condition how resources are interpreted and utilised in pursuit of anticipatory adaptation. Culture refers to the totality of a people’s way of life, the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features through which a society lives and reproduces itself (Llobera, 2003). The Kiribati National Development Strategy (2004–2007) has incorporated climate adaptation as a measure that can enhance the development needs of the people. In line with these goals, the Government of Kiribati has initiated two national adaptation programmes, which mainstream1 adaptation into various sectors. These programmes include a component to pilot community-based adaptation giving households the opportunity to implement actions they value. One such no-regrets adaptation strategy appropriate at the household level is the diversification of domestic water resources (i.e., risk spreading through the use of multiples sources).2 Diversity is a key property of a resilient socio-ecological system which enables the system to experience disturbances but still continue functioning (Holling and Walker, 2003; Folke, 2006). The opportunity to identify alternatives, secure diverse sources and experience ensuing benefits is partly dependent on people’s objective adaptive capacity3. Adaptive capacity is defined by ‘‘the set of resources (natural, financial, institutional or human, and including access to information, expertise, and social networks) available for adaptation, as well as the ability or capacity of that system to use these resources effectively in the pursuit of adaptation,’’ (Brooks and Adger, 2004, p. 168). However, recent scholarship on climate adaptation has overlooked the influential role of cultural values in structuring people’s adaptive capacity (Berkes and Jolly, 2002; Leduc, 2006; Hulme et al., 2007). As Sahlins (1976) asserts the material and cultural are inseparable; material goods or assets are embodied in some coefficient of culture (ideas, values, symbols, etc.) and is enacted through social processes. This requires adaptation studies to look beyond the material function of livelihood assets and identify the cultural purpose(s) to which they are assigned and the power relations that circumscribed their use (White and Ellison, 2006, p. 171). This study aims to fill this gap by presenting a case study from Kiribati with a specific focus on water management. The paper is divided into seven sections. Section 2 presents a theoretical framework for the study whilst Section 3 provides insights into the I-Kiribati (refers to indigenous people of Kiribati and their language) cultural context. The 1 Mainstreaming refers to the ‘‘integration of policies and measures that address climate change into development planning and sectoral decision-making,’’ (Persson and Klein, 2008, p. 3). 2 Multiple sources can include possessing more than one domestic well or rainwater tank that can act as a standby during times of water stress. 3 One’s full adaptive capacity is dependent on both subjective (i.e., internal to the person and includes risk perceptions and selfefficacy beliefs etc.,) and objective (external) elements such as access to institutions and various assets (Lorenzoni et al., 2000).

case study area and methods are introduced in Section 4. Sections 5 and 6 present the results and its discussion. Section 7 highlights the key findings of the study.

2. Capabilities and Sustainable Livelihood Framework A person’s motivation to anticipatorily adapt is partially contingent on their capability set. Sen (1999) defines capabilities as providing a person with the ability to realise their potential as human beings in the sense both of being (i.e., adequately nourished, healthy, etc.) and doing (i.e., to exercise choices, develop skills, participate socially, etc.). Bebbington (2001) and Narayan (2006) highlight that capabilities are sources of power or empowerment, ‘‘enabling people to make choices in a context where this was previously denied to them’’ (Petesch et al., 2006). Poverty under Sen’s definition is signified by severely curtailed human capabilities (Ellis, 2000). Thus, capabilities reflect a person’s freedom—‘‘the range of options available to a person in deciding what kind of life to lead’’ (de-Shalit, 2004, p. 804). Alkire (2005a) warns that, in deciding their freedom, people may undermine their values or value things that may be harmful to others. Central to this freedom is agency, the extent to which a person has the ability to influence processes (i.e., structuring their own lives or as general rules in the working of society) and opportunities to pursue valued beings/doings (Alkire, 2004, p. 7). ‘‘The agency aspect is important in assessing what a person can do in line with his or her conception of the good (Sen, 1985 in Alkire, 2005b, p. 219)’’ and thus can advance wellbeing4 beyond the person. Individual agency is often enacted through social relationships, producing an interdependence between the two (Devine et al., 2006). Capabilities comprise dynamic stocks of capital or assets people may draw upon as they address a problem such as climate stress. Scholarship on rural livelihoods and recent studies on climate adaptation generally represent these capitals as: human (skills, knowledge, good health, etc.); financial (saving, credit, etc.); natural (water resources, land types, etc.); social (social networks with neighbours, access to political power holders, etc.) and physical capital (basic infrastructure for water management, transport, etc.) (GDC, 2003, p. 3). Together, these assets can be held individually or collectively but are intertwined and are spatially and temporally dynamic (Adger et al., 2005). When certain capabilities are deprived, a person becomes increasingly susceptible to the impacts of specific social and biophysical hazards (i.e., dangers, shocks). The lack of response capacity (i.e., adaptive capacity) both reflects and creates vulnerable conditions for the person. Within coupled socio-ecological systems, a vulnerability approach enables an understanding of the complex interrelationships between a person’s capabilities and the multiple hazards being played out. The Sustainable Livelihoods Framework (SLF) developed by the British Department for International Development (DfID) is one such bottom-up tool that enables a collective under4 Sen highlights that agency and wellbeing are distinct concepts; ‘‘wellbeing refers to the person’s own state whilst agency is not tied to any type of aim,’’ (Alkire, 2005a, p. 219).

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standing of vulnerability and capabilities within a person’s/ household’s livelihood context (DFID, 2000; Vogel, 2001). The framework examines the extent of a person’s access to the five assets and explore how these assets are [or can be] deployed to produce valued outcomes despite being exposed to hazards and mediating policies/institutions (Ellis, 2000; Multi-Agency Report, 2003). This process is a key indicator of a person’s objective adaptive capacity to water related stresses (Tschakert, 2007). The benefits of adopting a SLF for water management is that it shifts the focus from the resources itself, to the role of water in people’s livelihood strategies (British Geological Survey, 2007, p. 1). However, a growing body of literature has criticised the SLF for neglecting the cultural dimension (i.e., relational and symbolic) of assets and called for culture to be represented as a separate asset category (White and Ellison, 2006; Runk et al., 2007; Patterson, 2008). Culture is represented in the SLF as a process that is located external to the assets; influencing the way people manage their assets and the choice of livelihood strategies they pursue. This perception of culture reinforces the material nature of assets (Adato and Meinzen-Dick, 2002). As White and Ellison (2006, p. 31) asserts ‘‘resources [assets] are infused with meanings and intentions which reside in the relationship between the ‘thing’ itself and the person who values it and deploys it as a resource within a social and cultural context.’’ For example land in Kiribati is not only a natural asset but a symbol of status as it was historically obtained through bloodshed on the part of a family’s ancestors (Iobi, 1985). Thus the kin group rather than the individual holds usufruct rights to the resource and largely determines how and under which conditions it is used. McGregor (2006) argues that it is cultural meanings that mediate such social contracts and materialise assets; in-turn conditioning the choices people make. Thus, an understanding of culture within the SLF requires a recognition of its duality; culture acts simultaneously as a specific form of asset and the context through which all assets are constituted (McGregor and Kebede, 2002 in White and Ellison, 2006, p. 14). Such an approach to land in Kiribati may highlight that it is not entirely held for material gain, but rather, to uphold one’s identity and to maintain and protect cultural values. Furthermore, such findings will shape how other livelihood assets are deployed and utilised; highlighting the interdependency between assets. Thus, collectively assets, including cultural resources, facilitate the freedom to achieve ‘‘livelihood outcomes’’ i.e., alternative beings and doings (Sen, 1997; Bebbington, 2001). In understanding people’s capacity to diversify, the study focusses on the I-Kiribati cultural value of maintaining social identity that was traditionally expressed through the kin group but today channelled through religious groups. This is not to localise culture to a particular area, but to demonstrate how this significant aspect of I-Kiribati culture shapes people’s freedom to overcome water hardships.


Cultural context with a focus on spirituality

Throughout history I-Kiribati cultural values have evolved continuously to adapt to changing circumstances which included colonisation, evangelisation and independence.


Despite the various influences, a traditional semi-subsistence lifestyle, reliant on copra and fishing still prevails on most of the islands where people have limited access to infrastructure and cash. Beliefs in equality are still strong and ownership to a larger community group such as the village or church remains a priority (Macdonald, 1982). This stems from the traditional kainga i.e., kinship residential group composed of extended family which used to function as the basic unit of economic organisation. Christianity and later colonisation led to the breakdown of the kainga as people were relocated from their dispersed traditional lands to centralised villages which were easier for the new institutions to control (Lawrence, 1992). Thus the immediate family rather than extended family is now the most important unit in Kiribati society (Talu, 1985). Contemporary village life, particularly on the southern islands revolves around the maneaba (meeting house) in which each family has a seating position passed down through their ancestors. Village problems are often discussed as a community within the maneaba and final decisions by the unimane (council of male elders) are binding. The unimane are still considered as the most powerful authority within the village but on some islands such as urban Tarawa, the role of unimane and maneaba system has become less significant. In many villages the adoption of Christianity has led to church maneabas replacing traditional village maneabas as people now tend to spend more time involved in church rather than village activities. Traditional religious beliefs were based on magic and the spirit world in which spirits come to life only after death. The arrival of the Evangelical movement to Kiribati in 1857 introduced new ideas and ways of thinking which were absent in traditional belief systems (Kirata, 1985). It offered a new God that was superior to traditional gods, who was merciful and forgiving. ‘‘The missionary began to be accepted as a new kind of authority and irrespective of their age they were viewed at the same level as the unimane,’’ (Kirata, 1985, p. 78). Churches were established to be self-financed, selfgoverned and self-propagating (Yengoyan, 2006, p. 358). ‘‘There was fear attached to magic but Christianity gave people more freedom. Before I-Kiribati culture had no forgiveness but the church changed this and taught about respect for others. However, we did change some elements of the culture, for example the Kiribati dance is more than just a dance. You have to compose the song for the dance which traditionally needs magic, but Christianity stopped magic so implicitly we stopped the dance,’’ (Bishop Mea, Head of Kiribati Catholic Church–19/05/06). Today most of the I-Kiribati population either belongs to the mainstream Protestant or Catholic Church. However, traditional spiritual beliefs continue to be practised but less openly amongst families. Despite the important role of the church in the lives of I-Kiribati such as providing free education, women’s empowerment, etc., concurrently there has been growing criticism of the church in the Pacific (Kirata, 1985; Lawrence, 1992; Yengoyan, 2006). For example, ‘‘the emphasis on individuality gave rise to new rights, responsibilities and obligations to fellow human beings which could only be sustained through the emergence of money as the medium of exchange’’ (Yengoyan, 2006, p. 362). Hayes (2006) notes that


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Table 1 – Demographics of each case study population. Village (Island)

Betio (South Tarawa) Tekabwibwi (Tabiteuea North) Kabuna (Tabituea North) Tanimaiaki (Butaritari) Vaticano (Butaritari)

Total households in village

Total households sampled

1618 26

76 11

32 39 50

17 11 13

the church is causing severe social problems in the Pacific such as increasing levels of poverty and even breaking up families through the parasitic demands for larger financial contributions from its followers. Thus, given the significance of religion as acting as a medium for maintaining I-Kiribati cultural values, it has the potential to impede climate adaptation by shaping the ends its followers are able to pursue.


Case study location and methods

The Republic of Kiribati comprises 33 low-lying islands (average width 450 m, height above sea level 3 m), straddling the central Pacific with a population of 93,000, covering a landmass of only 730 km2. The country is extremely isolated and approximately one-third of the population lives in the capital South Tarawa which has an area of 15.8 km2 and a population density of 2558/km2; this places a great strain on the limited groundwater resources. Adopting the SLF, a household level semi-structured survey (total 132 interviews) was conducted focussing on the three islands of the Gilbert Island cluster (South Tarawa, North Tabituea and Butaritari) where most of the I-Kiribati population resides. The selected islands possess distinct cultural and climatological contexts (see Table 1). Five villages across the three islands were chosen to represent different types of water systems. Betio village in South Tarawa represents the most developed area in Kiribati, with householders having access to basic services and infrastructure. The semi-structured survey was designed to focus on the capitals. It aimed to ascertain how households access and utilise these capitals in an effort to expand adaptive capacity to current and expected water stress. The survey included approximately half of the households from each outer island village (i.e., Tabituea North and Butaritari). Due to the high urban population in Betio, a representative sample of 76 surveys was undertaken. The survey aimed to include an equal gender distribution. Most respondents on the outer islands had attended only primary school whilst many of those on South Tarawa had attended secondary schooling.




How does natural capital affect adaptive capacity?

Across the islands, most households extract groundwater through private wells and on South Tarawa households also

Main type of water system Reticulated Communal well with solar water pump Private wells Private wells Two community ferro-cement rainwater tanks plus private wells


Average annual rainfall (mm)

Urban Rural

1956 1418



have access to a piped water system which extracts groundwater from two freshwater reserves i.e., Bonriki and Buota lenses. The highly permeable sands coupled with shallow water tables (2–5 m in depth) leave groundwater on all islands extremely susceptible to pollutants. The sustainable yield of the lens on South Tarawa is approximately 54 L per person per day (L/p/d)5 which can meet the non-potable needs of householders. The lower populations on the outer islands give rise to sustainable yields in excess of 100 L/p/d which can provide all householder water requirements. However, a lack of enforcement of pollution controls and limited investment in water quality monitoring has minimised the fraction of sustainable yield that can safely meet householder water requirements. Climate change will affect the quantity and quality of freshwater lenses. The IPCC projects intense rainfall events over the central Pacific which will increase pollutant runoff and exacerbate rates of water-borne diseases (Christensen et al., 2007). Rising sea levels will push shallow water tables closer to the surface and, when coupled with projected increases in temperature, groundwater will become vulnerable to greater rates of evaporation (Burns, 2002). Using the groundwater model SUTRA, Alam and Falkland (1997) undertook a detailed study of changes to the thickness of the Bonriki lens under various climatic scenarios; the rise in mean sea level coupled with a reduction in island width, reduces the thickness of the lenses by 10%. Diversification of water resources, a coping strategy adopted by the I-Kiribati during droughts has the potential to enhance adaptive capacity to the combined impacts of climatic and non-climatic stresses. On the outer islands households diversify by accessing their standby wells which are located away from the coast in bushland areas. They also borrow rainwater from churches or neighbours with tin roofs. On the urbanised island of South Tarawa, households switch from utilising the reticulated water which is rationed during droughts to alternate sources. These include utilising private wells, borrowing rainwater from neighbours or churches and purchasing water from the tanker service provided by the water utility. Despite, the poor groundwater quality in South Tarawa, households without access to rainwater revert to using their wells to meet potable needs i.e., drinking, cooking and washing plates. Thus in diversifying, households are either dependent on others or utilise water sources that 5 Personal communication with Tony Falkland, SIDS water expert—March 2007. This figure excludes the Bonriki and Buota lenses.

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undermine their health. Climate change will reduce the quantity and quality of groundwater that is available to meet a strategy of diversification. Thus adaptation initiatives must aim to secure people’s access to diverse sources. This includes ensuring households possess their own rainwater tanks and protecting existing wells by cement lining open wells or installing locally designed hand pumps (Tamana or Marakei pumps) that minimise over extraction of groundwater.


How does physical capital affect adaptive capacity?

Physical capital was examined primarily by the extent to which respondents had access to water infrastructure which can be included in a strategy of diversification. On Betio, households have access to a reticulated water system managed by the Ministry of Public Works and Utilities (MPWU) which distributes groundwater via gravity to 500 L household plastic tanks or standpipes. In meeting their daily water requirements, 74% of Betio respondents accessed three sources of water, 25% two sources and 1% a single source. Majority of respondents (96%) had access to a domestic well, 92% to reticulated water and 83% to rainwater but ownership of the systems varied. Most respondents (80%) utilised their own domestic wells and reticulated water tanks, but rainwater tanks were least popular. Domestic wells were vital in meeting household water demand when reticulated tanks ran low. Reticulated water was consumed mainly for potable purposes and groundwater for non-potable needs. ‘‘The water service isn’t regular e.g., last month we didn’t receive water for almost a week but this month it has been regular. We run out of [reticulated] water about twice a week and when this happens we use the rainwater or if we don’t have enough rainwater then we use our brackish well water for cooking,’’ (Betio respondent 60, age group 18-25). Most (82%) of the larger (5000 L) rain tanks were found on rented out government housing6 whilst only 23% were privately owned. Given that 60% of the respondents lived in private housing in which 91% had permanent tin roofing highlights the under-utilisation of rainwater amongst private owners. Despite the high demand for rainwater tanks amongst Betio householders, the cost of a 5000 L tank, approximately US$750 is unreachable for the average household. A loans scheme operated by the Kiribati Housing Corporation (KHC) offers loans for residents on South Tarawa to cover the cost of rainwater tanks; the uptake of loans has been low due to respondents’ inability to meet monthly repayments or failure to meet the application criteria. On both outer islands, respondents had access to either private or communal wells to meet most water requirements. Half the respondents on the outer islands had unprotected wells; highlighting financial constraints as a barrier to purchasing cement rings (cost US$13). High rainfall on Butaritari ensured most respondents had access to adequate quantities of rainwater. Forty-five percent of 6

Public servants are provided housing owned by the Government at a subsidised rate.


Butaritari respondents owned private rainwater catchments, comprising mainly small 20 L or 200 L plastic containers, attached to a few pieces of tin sheeting placed over thatched roofs. These respondents often shared the rainwater with two or more households. Although Butaritari respondents preferred rainwater for potable needs, most were unable to afford the cost of setting up such small rainwater catchments. They also lacked information on alternate methods of securing access to rainwater catchments e.g., fundraising for subsidised communal tanks provided through aid agencies. In the villages of Tekabwibwi and Vaticano, respondents also had access to the MPWU communal water systems. At the time of the fieldwork, in Vaticano the rainwater system was not working and all the communal taps were broken. However, the solar pumped well system in Tekabwibwi was in working order with only a few communal taps broken. Most of the MPWU communal water systems for the outer islands are poorly maintained by the communities. To overcome this, the MPWU recently introduced a by-law which requires households to pay a monthly maintenance fee for the purchase of spare parts. Thus a marked urban–rural contrast in access to physical capital is observed. These inequalities are further accentuated between rural communities; limiting the choice of water sources that can form part of a diversification strategy. Furthermore, respondents limited knowledge of potential funding sources and information regarding water issues constrained their ability to gain access to new water infrastructure that can form part of a diversification strategy. As highlighted earlier access to rainwater forms a vital part of a diversification strategy but the high costs of rainwater catchments acted as a barrier to its uptake. The poorly maintained and unreliable water infrastructure also impedes people’s ability to utilise the source as part of a diversification strategy.


How does human capital affect adaptive capacity?

The sustainability of livelihoods is dependent on the health of people. Stemming from the high cases of water-borne diseases reported across Kiribati, this analysis of human capital focussed on respondents understanding of water quality issues and their perceived links to water related illnesses. Most respondents understood the impacts of pit toilets on their wells which partly justified their preference for beach toileting. However, respondents failed to understand the impacts of surface pollutants such as animal waste on groundwater. ‘‘I don’t believe that pigs can dirty the groundwater as the pigs live up on the surface and the well water is under the ground. Only pit toilets can pollute the groundwater as it’s close to the water lens,’’ (Betio respondent 53, age group 56–65). In Betio, respondents whose wells were contaminated by hydrocarbons felt powerless to initiate and act upon their concerns. Instead they continued to utilise polluted water for non-potable purposes.


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in our seas. Many of the outer islanders have migrated to Betio and they’re taking all our fish. We often have to purchase food on credit from our local store and pay back when we have the money. We can’t afford the [reticulated] water connection fee so we borrow [reticulated] water from our neighbour,’’ (Betio respondent 16).

‘‘We use our well for bathing and washing clothes. The water is brown in colour because it’s affected by diesel oil leaking from the nearby MPWU power station. We haven’t complained to the MPWU about it because even if we complain, those who handle the complaints are very laidback and don’t care about our problems,’’ (Betio respondent 34, age group 26–35). Respondents were questioned regarding the frequency of diarrhoea amongst their families and their likely causes. Forty percent of Betio and 53% (averaged) of the outer islanders said their families suffered from diarrhoea one to three times a year. These are conservative figures7 given the high cases reported annually by the Ministry of Health for the villages in the case study (Ministry of Health, 1998). Diarrhoea amongst respondents was mainly attributed to both contaminated food and water. Only 15% (averaged) of all respondents felt contaminated water was the main contributor. Most respondents did not boil their rainwater, perceiving it to be free from pollutants as it fell from the sky. When respondents were asked to prioritise lifestyle values they perceived as important such as family, health, and clean water; across the islands, health received a high ranking but not clean water. Respondents have failed to appreciate the connection between clean water and health benefits. The results highlight the influential role of cognition and education in shaping human capital. Thus respondents poor understanding of the hydrological cycle and its impacts on human health partly impedes their agency in pursuing strategies that enhance household water management practices. For example a diversification strategy must aim to protect existing resources but many household wells are unprotected because of the limited awareness as well as other barriers such as financial resources.


How does financial capital affect adaptive capacity?

Customary rights to land and marine resources enable most IKiribati to lead a subsistence lifestyle. Thus, there is no abject poverty (i.e., failure to meet basic human needs) or severe malnutrition. However, there is hardship or ‘poverty of opportunities’ to access employment, safe water, education, etc., required for personal development (Thomas and Tonganibeia, 2007; Zun˜iga, 2007). Financial capital was assessed by questioning respondents on their main sources of household income and the approximate distribution of household expenditure. In Betio the main source of household income was from government employment, followed by employment within private sector, remittances, pension and informal employment e.g., fishing and selling toddy8. Half the households (58%) had at least two incomes in which both parents would be working or else a child would be making a financial contribution.

On the outer islands, livelihoods were dependant on fishing, agriculture (cultivating bananas in Butaritari) and cutting copra. Most households traditionally had a single income source but this was changing gradually with the demand for extra cash to cover school fees,9 transport and imported foods. This has led to an increased number of women also making a contribution to the household budget through informal incomes such as selling handicrafts and food items. To understand the distribution of household spending, respondents were asked to rank the various expenditure categories such as food, education, etc. In Betio the main categories were: food (28% of income), education (20%), utility bills (19%) and church (18%). On the outer islands this was: food (30%), church (28%) and education (20%). ‘‘After food most of our money goes to the church. We are not members of any church group as we don’t have time to commit to attending meetings but every pay day our Catholic church collects US$80 from my husband’s pay. We can give less but it is shameful so it’s very difficult to save money due to many [financial] commitments,’’ (Betio respondent 49, age group 36–45). Across the islands, respondents’ financial contributions to the church were significant. These, although voluntary, are in effect compulsory as each village church group was obliged to meet financial targets set by church headquarters in South Tarawa. Additionally church groups compete with each other to raise the most funding. To ‘fit in’ and ensure their respective groups remained competitive, respondents were obliged to make weekly contributions to the church. Failure to do so was often believed to attract shame upon respondent’s families. In traditional I-Kiribati society, emphasis was on social rather than personal responsibility. Thus for most respondents money not only symbolised independence but also the social commitments, to be spent on collective activities such as the church or village. Exploitation of such values by the church was an implicit act of coercion. Thus fewer resources were available for initiatives that enhanced respondent’s capacity to overcome household water hardships and pursue a strategy of diversification. ‘‘On the outer islands most people spend their money on the church as well as fulfilling village commitments. The church year is separated into three terms and each term we fundraise to pay for the living costs of the missionaries and the balance gets sent to the headquarters in Tarawa. Most people who work for the government [on the outer islands] give half their salaries to the church but they don’t mind because most of the food they get from the land or sea for free,’’ (Vaticano respondent 1).

‘‘Our main source of income is from fishing but it is becoming very difficult to find fish now as there are less fish 7 On average people have diarrhoea three times a week,’’ (Ms Terautete—Kabuna Village Nurse, 26/03/06). 8 Local alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of the coconut flower.


Education is free until Junior Secondary School.

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How does social capital affect adaptive capacity?

Membership of various social networks can empower people in overcoming water hardships through providing access to new skills, resources and organisations (Krishna, 2001). Across the islands 60% (averaged) of respondents were members of a group. Respondents were affiliated mainly with a church group but other formal10 groups included village youth groups and church womens groups, unimane committees and village welfare committees. These groups generally held formal meetings on a weekly basis. However, most respondents met informally with their church groups on several occasions during the week to undertake fundraising activities such as playing bingo. ‘‘Many of the women can’t save money as they finish their money in playing church or village bingo. They don’t know how to budget and this has implications for their kids, e.g., they don’t have money to buy food for kids. The kids then get neglected and have to look after themselves,’’ (Christina Teburea–Tabituea North Island Council, Womens Interest Worker, 25/03/06). ‘‘If people perceive it as something bad then they won’t go there [bingo events]. When people play bingo, they are hoping to win. . .so it’s fundraising with some return. The women enjoy the social aspect, rather than staying home all day . . .it’s like an outlet for them. It’s not like a casino, our bingo promotes the social aspect and the money goes to community projects e.g., building church group maneabas. People raised US$1 million to build a [Catholic] secondary school in Betio. We only support the church community as a whole but not individual families because the church is part of the community,’’ (Bishop Mea–Head of Catholic Church Kiribati, 19/05/06). When respondents were questioned on the issues discussed during group meetings, most replied fundraising followed by concerns pertinent to each group. On average, 70% of respondents never discussed water or environmental issues during any of their group meetings whilst 15% only spoke about the issues at least once a year. The main topics of discussion regarding water included fundraising for rainwater tanks for the church maneabas and keeping the household areas clean to prevent groundwater pollution. Participation in groups enabled networking, exchanges of information and acquisition of new skills such as home gardening. The church groups in particular, also acted as support networks during times of crisis by providing access to micro-credit. Respondents were able to utilise their social agency e.g., organising fundraising activities and social events for the church. Furthermore, during times of water stress members could borrow rainwater from the church. Membership of some church groups was partly to gain material benefits. For example the Mormon Church in Kiribati, encourages membership by offering inexpensive education (Teiwaki, 1985). 10

Formal groups had a committee of elected members consisting of a chairperson, secretary and treasurer.


Although, respondents invested a significant portion of their time and finances to the church, there was limited evidence of the church ‘giving back’ to their communities beyond religious boundaries, by organising and funding initiatives that enhance the wellbeing of its members. Furthermore, none of the respondents had utilised their church networks to initiate activities that could overcome water hardships of individual members. Members of church groups mainly followed rules set by the Ministers and had limited input into decision making or opportunities to voice concerns regarding the structures that shaped how church groups functioned. However, the opportunity to challenge such structures was also restricted by respondent’s cultural values that frowned upon any verbal opposition to church ideals. This may be supported by church leaders’ assertions to their followers that spiritual recognition is gained through serving the needs of the church and the social group rather than the individual. Thus in maintaining cultural values respondents were adding to their own hardships by restricting their agency to effect structures shaping their lives. The benefits of participation served the larger purpose of meeting social and religious obligations rather than promoting wellbeing benefits to the individual such as diversification of water resources.


Discussion—accommodating new spirits

Given that culture and religion are critical components of livelihoods in the Pacific Islands, they should be treated as a separate set of factors in understanding adaptive capacity i.e., cultural capital. Traditionally, ‘‘the ‘I-Kiribati way of life’ based on strong social obligations and egalitarian ethics ensured the wellbeing of all household members’’ (Borovnik, 2005, p. 134). However, within the backdrop of every day life, the results illustrate the struggles I-Kiribati undergo in their attempts to exercise agency and transform their assets into livelihood outcomes or valued freedoms that enhance their existing circumstances and enable them to pursue a diversification strategy. Across the three case study islands, pre-existing cultural values mediated through social relationships conditioned and determined to a large extent the ways in which respondents utilised or could utilise their agency. Culturally, the rights of the social group are recognised over those of the individual and for most I-Kiribati, ‘‘the immediate experience is one in which the individual is integrated into the larger group in social, if not cultural, terms,’’ (Friedman, 1994, p. 186). Thus for most respondents, the moral economy of the household was one in which livelihood assets were maintained to serve the wider purpose of reproducing interpersonal relationships. For example, financial resources provided personal significance when they were spent on satisfying community obligations, particularly those related to the church. Thus fewer resources were available for initiatives to pursue a strategy of diversification. In many Pacific Islander communities, it is through the alienation of resources (i.e., giving away) that people become recognised as social beings (Robbins, 2006, p. 181). ‘‘Community rights in Kiribati are more important than the individual rights. The individual is nothing here, the


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community is most important but in the western way it’s the opposite. Our Constitution is taken from the British laws and doesn’t acknowledge any rights of the community, only the individual. For I-Kiribati, ‘freedom’ is about working together, not freedom to do what ever you like. . . we’re all interdependent,’’ (Bishop Mea–Head of Catholic Church Kiribati, 19/05/06). Traditionally, agency was experienced through membership of the larger social kinship group, the kainga, which was further integrated into the broader collective identity of the village maneaba system. Stratification of status was absent across the community but present only within the kainga which was based on an age-set system (Hockings, 1989). The unimane had the highest authority and attached to each age group were specific responsibilities. However, the stratification was dynamic whereby each individual was able to move up the social order, establishing new identity as well as increased power. Although agency was principally exercised through collectivism, the egalitarian values of the kinship system ensured that advances to wellbeing extended to the household and the individual level. Thus the individual and the social were interdependent, but the benefits of enhanced wellbeing enabled the individual to exercise autonomous agency within the respective age group. With the decline of the kainga and on some islands the maneaba system; the household became the most important economic group. People’s daily lives began to be shaped by new social organisations with the church leading the way. Yengoyan (2006, p. 358) highlights that ‘‘to sustain the impact of the Church, religious ceremonies and prayer would fit into local custom and tradition.’’ Thus people began reconstructing their cultural identities creolising traditional and introduced values, embedding these within the context of the church rather than the kainga. The results indicate that the recently established interdependence between church groups and individuals enables agency to continue to be utilised through the social but, unlike the traditional kinship system, the quality of agency is less equitable. The wellbeing benefits that trickle down to the agent are limited. This is due to the following key factors. Firstly, although the church has modelled its structures to represent the traditional system of collectivism closely, their goals remain firmly grounded in advancing spiritual wellbeing. Over time through increased membership, the church has gained greater power within the I-Kiribati social order. As highlighted by the results, to maintain their power base, the church has gradually exploited ‘collectivism’ to serve its own interests rather than the needs of its followers. Collective activities such as church bingo and fundraising events that encourage competition amongst various parish groups benefit the church covertly. Gough et al. (2007, p. 23) argues that structures of power and values such as those embedded within the church ‘‘not only constrain the social room for manoeuvre of the poor, but also their ability to conceive realistic alternatives.’’ Unlike the kinship system, power is static and remains subordinate to the individual, localised within church elites. Thus, the needs of the social and individual are no longer mutual. Secondly, the insulating layer between the social group (i.e., the church) and the individual is no longer land but

religious entitlements. To access and maintain these entitlements, the individual is required to partake in collective activities that involve greater expenditure in financial rather than human resources. Social recognition is now given presence through the investment of financial resources rather than the production of babai (taro). Within the kinship system, to ensure the sustainability of scarce resources, affluence was discouraged and equality maintained through mechanisms such as ostracism, shaming and sharing surplus wealth (Hockings, 1989). Similar mechanisms have been adopted by the church where members, particularly those earning larger salaries are encouraged to distribute their wealth towards church activities. Thus, maximising personal profits was often perceived by respondents to be shameful. However, a few respondents, particularly in Betio, asserted greater autonomous agency. Their passive social behaviour was a personalised form of resistance against the established power structure of the church. Others manipulated the social structure, e.g., respondents who had joined the Mormon church to access improved education facilities. ‘‘I’m passive with my involvement in church activities so don’t have regular expenditure on church events. When ever people come to my house fundraising for the church by selling cakes then I help them out but I don’t see the importance of making a weekly contribution from my pay to the church which is what most I-Kiribati do,’’ (Betio respondent 54, age group 46–55). A majority of respondents, even under conditions of relative shortage and growing pressures, were able to exercise and maintain social agency through the church. As one respondent highlighted: ‘‘Perhaps I will give you a very good example of my village on Abaiang island. Every year, they celebrate the very existence of the village maneaba and to mark the special day, the elders decide the type of item every household must bring for the big day. This year it’s a wooden chest. At the same time, Abaiang unimane decided that every household on the island must produce one mat and babai [taro] for the first anniversary of their maneaba that was built on Betio. At the church level, the Catholic community is preparing themselves for the centennial celebration of their church tower which people will have to financially contribute towards. You see how things happen here. Despite the odds, my village members have to fulfil all these tasks, otherwise they will be an odd-man-out,’’ (Betio respondent 5, age group 46–55). This may indicate the resilient nature of I-Kiribati, but what is salient is that respondents’ decision to participate in church activities both enabled and constrained their agency. Giddens (1986) refers to such processes as the ‘duality of structure’, ‘‘which sees that institutional properties of social systems are created by human actions, and in turn shape future actions’’ (Pang et al., 2006, p. 527). The church groups enabled respondents to utilise their social agency but simultaneously cultural values precluded the promotion of autonomous agency within these networks.

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Irrespective of the effectiveness of adaptation or development policy, deprivation and poverty of agency amongst respondents will continue to be reproduced if cultural realities and the structures they embody are overlooked. ‘‘It is the existence of a surface (e.g., social medium of the church) that allows social actors of equally diverse intent to pursue their goals’’ (Herzfeld, 2001, p. 220). Thus, adaptation programmes must work with mediating organisations such as the church to facilitate interventions that enable people to secure positive freedoms i.e., to affect processes and pursue development opportunities. This can entail investments in programmes that link church groups to key water management organisations through which people can gain new information and become empowered to address community water management issues. Initiatives that build awareness of climate change and water issues amongst church leaders who can transfer this knowledge on a frequent basis to church members should also be included. The church must also pattern its services in ways that rebalance power relationships, enabling them to become more receptive to the shifting needs and capabilities of its members. For example in pursuing a diversification strategy, a portion of member contribution can be channelled towards purchasing cement bags or hand pumps for household wells or funding towards rainwater catchments. Through such initiatives, members are simultaneously able to practice social as well as autonomous agency through collective activities of the church.



Given that climate change is projected to exacerbate existing water stresses, sector specific adaptation strategies such as diversification of domestic water sources are a necessity. Through a livelihoods analysis which embedded water management in the larger socio-political and cultural context present in Kiribati, the findings highlighted the struggles IKiribati undergo to assert autonomous agency and transform their assets into pursuing a strategy of diversification. For IKiribati and Pacific Island communities in general, assets are interpreted not only as resources that provide means to an end but are also embodied in cultural symbolism which was expressed traditionally through the social domain of the kinship system. Colonisation and evangelisation have led to the erosion of family networks and the adoption of the church as the key institution in which cultural values were reproduced and social identity reconstructed. However, by integrating the cultural dimension of maintaining social identity into the analysis highlighted that financial resources provided greater personal significance when channelled towards meeting social obligations. This limited the financial resources available to pursue a diversification strategy, particularly purchasing rainwater tanks and measures to protect household wells. Furthermore, to maintain their social wellbeing respondents invested a great amount of time undertaking church group activities. However, unlike the kinship system, power structures embedded within the church as well as respondent’s own perceptions of the need to serve the church, restricted benefits that extended to the individual. Accordingly, respondents were deprived of their freedom to exercise


autonomous agency and achieve personal wellbeing goals such as a diversification strategy. The results demonstrate the utility of integrating cultural capital alongside conventional assets into the SLF to understand adaptive capacity of communities. Specifically it highlights the significance of considering relational aspects of assets, in conditioning how people access and utilise assets in pursuing adaptation strategies. The study has also shown the importance of religion to adaptation, particularly in contexts where it is central to peoples’ lives. Moreover, the findings illustrate that co-benefits are likely to be undermined if people’s cultural values and relations associated with the assets they control or are likely to control are not integrated into both development and adaptation interventions. Thus, adaptation programmes must aim to work within such value systems to facilitate interventions that redress power imbalances and empower individuals to help themselves through mediatory organisations such as the church. Future work on understanding adaptive capacity can be enhanced by exploring the power relations that shape the use of resources, the power inequalities that are created in their use and its implications for cultural capital.

Acknowledgements The detailed comments of Prof. Diana Liverman and three anonymous reviewers are gratefully acknowledged. Thanks to the Environmental Change Institute for providing financial support to undertake fieldwork in Kiribati. Sincere thanks are also due to the I-Kiribati communities that participated in this research.


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