Kiribati island of Banaba devastated by mining says NZ contributed to water crisis, should help fund rehabilitation

phosphate kiribati
New Zealand, Australia and the UK stripped 90 percent of the island's surface between 1920 and 1981, paying landowners a pittance in royalties. Photo credit: Getty Images

The New Zealand Government has reportedly declined to comment on requests for help from an island that's lost its supply of fresh water, despite being blamed for the problem. 

The only desalination plant on the island of Banaba, Kiribati, broke down in November - and there's been no rain in more than a year, the Guardian reports

"Skin disease and diarrhoea is widespread, especially in children, because we’ve had no choice but to drink contaminated water or saltwater," resident Taboree Biremon told the paper, whose reporting on the Pacific is funded through the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism.

"The [children] are not OK because they don't understand. They want food they can't receive. We just feel so sad about it but there's nothing we can do."

A delivery of water and equipment for a new desalination plant from the Kiribati capital Tarawa in March brought some relief, but elders say they want a long-term solution - the restoration of ancient caves called 'te bangabanga', which were badly damaged in the 20th Century via mining.

New Zealand, Australia and the UK stripped 90 percent of the island's surface between 1920 and 1981, paying landowners a pittance in royalties for the phosphate they took. An ABC News report in 2019 said Banaba had been turned from "an oasis of green" into "a mass of craggy pinnacles - bizarre columns of rock that tower above head height".

A decade-long court case the Banabas launched in the 1960s against the UK ended a decade later with a win, but the judge didn't put a dollar value on how much the industrialised nations owed. Both Australia and the UK ended up paying some compensation, but not enough to reverse decades of devastation.

The 'bangabanga' caves used to store water during times of drought, allowing residents to get by. But now they're either gone or contaminated. 

"For many Banabans, te bangabanga now exists only in the stories and dances passed down through the generations," said elder Pelenise Alofa.

He said Australia and New Zealand need to send experts over to investigate how the damage can be reversed, and fund it. 

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told the Guardian it supported the March delivery of relief, but declined to comment on the Banabans' hope for a long-term fix.

Newshub has contacted the ministry for clarification. 

"As an activist, I teach the young generation to stand their ground and be brave," local youth leader Rae Baineti told the paper.

"I encourage them to have this conversation, to hold governments who contributed to the destruction of our land to account."