No rain on welcome parade for Kiribati President

Last updated 14:33 05/06/2008
JOHN SELKIRK/Dominion Post
WELCOME TO NZ: The President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, left, and his wife Meme Tong during the Powhiri and Wero from a member of the NZ defence Force Maori Cultural Group at a State welcome at Goverment House in Auckland.
Colourful Government House welcome

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It was meant to rain on Auckland's Government House and Kiribati's visiting President Anote Tong would have been delighted had his military welcome been washed out.

Kiribati – the only nation in the world divided by the Equator and the International Dateline – has had virtually no rain for three years.

Its more trouble for the mostly low-lying atoll nation of just 811 square kilometres of land on over 33 atolls spread over 3.6 million square kilometres of the Pacific. Much of it, other than the phosphate pillaged Banaba Island, is no more than five metres above sea-level.

Its capital island, Tarawa, is reputedly sinking although man-made changes and dense overpopulation have caused a lot of the coastal damage.

Tong, who really does have a masters degree from the London School of Economics, is here this week as key guest for the World Environment Day.

In bright but cold sunshine Governor-General Anand Satyanand welcomed Tong and his wife Meme to New Zealand. Full military honours were given but the show was stolen by boys from nearby Auckland Grammar who performed their own fierce haka.

Tong will give a public address in Wellington and visit his former high school, St Bede's College in Christchurch, and Canterbury and Otago Universities where he also studied.

His mind though is likely to drift home where his government is developing a plan to cope with persistent drought. It's so bad that even the coconut trees are dying.

Metrological Service director Moreti Tibriano says the situation on the southern part of Kiribati is particularly grim and he says the long range forecast is for continued dry.

Tong took 64 percent of the vote last October to win a second term as president. In the July 2003 election he took 47 percent of the vote after getting into a slanging match with his brother, Dr Harry Tong, who got 43 percent. The president, who is father of seven, accused the doctor of womanising.

They are of Chinese origin but now regarded as i-Kiribati by the local people.

Kiribati, population 97,200, was formally the British territory of the Gilbert Islands. In 1942 the Japanese occupied Tarawa and executed, by sword, 17 New Zealand soldiers and Post Office workers. There bodies have never been found.

On November 20, 1943, the US Marines landed on Betio islet on Tarawa, just 114 hectares. They got caught by the strange tides and had to make a murderous walk across the lagoon to "Red Beach". After three days 1027 Americans were dead while around 4800 Japanese, the entire garrison, were killed.

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- Fairfax Media

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