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Preparing for Liftoff

Welcome to the Voyage of Kiri, an overland educational and research journey from Miller-McCune's home city of Santa Barbara, Calif., along the Pacific Coast of Mexico.

Six days to departure.

Date: April 22, 2010

Location: Aboard the sailing vessel Aldebaran, in the Santa Barbara harbor.

Conditions: Sunlight over the ocean with dark clouds scattered on the hills after a storm front — and this is mid-April? The water is gray-brown from the river runoff. My thumb is throbbing from an accident with the paddle board.

Discussion: On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I am celebrating. There is less than a week until my departure on the Voyage of Kiri, an environmental research trip through coastal Mexico. The maps of Baja and mainland are in my mind, the dusty roads and verdant mountains are starting to take shape — along with the possible encounters we will have: the young entrepreneurs, the elderly in the villages, the cacti and the rabbits. How is the climate affecting them and their water? What message will they share with the global community, if any?

Although we will travel through Mexico, the inspiration for this trip came from 6,000 miles away: a little coral atoll in the Pacific called Kiribati (pronounced Kiri-bas) that is on average less than 10 feet above sea level. As one could imagine, sea-level rise is not a curiosity in the morning paper for the 100,000 residents. It is washing out houses with storm-driven surge, and it is contaminating drinking water aquifers with salt water. A few of the low-lying uninhabited islands have been submerged.

From top, the Kiribati flag, a map of the islands, Kiribati children. Click image to enlarge.

From top, the Kiribati flag, a map of the islands, Kiribati children. Click image to enlarge.

Water is already scarce on this shallow archipelago nation, a situation made worse by 50 years of mismanagement. Unplanned trash dumps and sewage runoff have leached into the groundwater. Coral mining and blast fishing have inadvertently removed protection from storms — just as filling and destroying mangroves in Louisiana and Thailand turned those areas into sitting ducks for hurricanes and tsunamis.

It is said that earthquakes don't kill people — the buildings get us. Similarly, climate change doesn't kill people. It is shortsighted management of resources that can get us. In Kiribati, the situation is so dire that leaders are considering evacuation within the next two decades. Imagine, leaving your homeland due to local ecological failure and global climate change. The jury is still out on who is responsible for this mess.

[For some perspective on the daily life and development issues of Kiribati, see the book The Sex Lives of Cannibals, a funny and somewhat cynical travelogue by J.Maarten Troost]

Not that Kiribati is like coastal Mexico, but its present drama forces us to ask the question: If climate changes and water issues are wreaking havoc elsewhere, are there impacts (subtle, long term or otherwise) we should be aware of in our neck of the woods? Can climate and water teach us about running more sustainable societies and conserving resources more wisely?

A quick detour about the debate on climate change (aka the climate circus):

I remember when the United Nations came to Rio de Janeiro in 1992 for the first Earth Summit — I was in fifth grade at the American School in Rio. The military was on the streets to "keep the peace," black cars would drive by with delegates, and lots of good rhetoric was written down. Then Kyoto 1998 came and went with some hot air about reducing greenhouse gases that the U.S. Senate did not buy.

Fast-forward 10 years. Despite the downpour of citizen groups and a media blitz, the hopes hanging on Copenhagen 2009 to come to a climate agreement fizzled. Can we blame them? I mean, have you ever tried to come to agreement with 10 people about anything much less 150 heads of state, trying to represent 6 billion people on an issue central to economic development and well-being? The task of reducing greenhouse gases in an immediate manner looks bleak. Nevertheless, we must figure it out.

POP QUIZ: Guess where the next climate conference will be held in 2010?

The Voyage of Kiri route. Click image to enlarge.

The Voyage of Kiri route. Click image to enlarge.

The goal of the Voyage of Kiri is to bring people's messages to that conference that will be held in Cancún this coming November and to research the best practices for watershed protection and climate adaptation along the coast. To do this, we'll study different types of sustainable business and protected areas that are improving watershed health and community resilience.

We will meet people in towns such as Punta Abreojos and Bahia Magdalena in Baja, which were hit by hurricanes last year. We will visit coastal lagoons south of Mazatlán, and turtle nesting grounds in the Michoacán coast. We'll take a detour inland to Patzcuaro, an island in a mountain lake, which shares the challenges of its distant coastal neighbors. The final destination is the ecological resort of Bahias de Huatulco in the state of Oaxaca, the site for a more in-depth study into measures for watershed protection and climate adaptation.

Along the route, our friends at Waterkeeper groups and Rotary Clubs will help us get our bearings. The Rotary Foundation kindly provided an Ambassadorial Scholarship to carry out this study and foster goodwill between nations. Thank you!

Although this is a research and goodwill voyage, this will also be an adventure. After all, we are being transported by a vehicle affectionately known as El Hippo, plodding south-bound along the dusty roads and verdant mountains that will soon turn from dream to reality. Though far from native habitat, El Hippo will be happy roaming the rivers and coastal lagoons; hippopotamus does means "horse of the river." He may take us down wrong turns and intrigue the soldiers at military checkpoints, but he'll be our home for more than three months.

A whole coastline of discoveries await as well as the voices of people finding harmony with nature — or failing to. Six days to departure! Until April 28 ... see you soon.