Alumnus applies skills learned at campus garden to sustain flooding Kiribati

Written by: 
Amy Harper & Colton McLane

Eritai Kateibwi, a Fall 2016 business alumnus, has set out to save his home country Kiribati, which is being overrun by flooding, by preventing crops from being submerged through a hydroponics farming water system he learned through BYU-Hawaii’s Sustainable World Action and Technology Team. “He is literally saving his island nation,” said Les Harper, director of S.W.A.T.T.

Kiribati’s Crisis

In an interview with Vice News, Anote Tong, president of Kiribati, said the country is being flooded as sea levels rise and the people are losing land to grow crops. Tong said within 30-50 years, his nation of over 100,000 people will be totally submerged while tides increase over a meter per year due to climate change.

Kiribati is a group of atolls in the Pacific, where the highest point is only 6 feet (2 meters) above sea level. The people have been advised to abandon their homes and seek refuge in other countries due to the effects of climate change, king tides, and potential rising sea levels.

Kateibwi said neighboring countries like Fiji and New Zealand have offered to take in Kiribati citizens every year, but some of the people do not want to leave their homes and become displaced. He said they desire to fight to protect their homes with preventative projects in the works such as planting mangrove trees along the coast to prevent incoming tides from growing.

Discovering a solution

Harper approached Kateibwi to work for Facilities Management after hearing his idea about creating a hideaway resort in Kiribati to boost the economy. Kateibwi said he was impressed with some of the projects other students were working on through S.W.A.T.T. and realized it was the exact type of learning experience he was looking for. He transferred to work for Facilities Management.

While working for S.W.A.T.T., Kateibwi learned about the hydroponics farming system in the Sustainability Garden. He said he had never seen the technology before and realized how it could be extremely helpful to his people. He decided to apply for academic training with S.W.A.T.T. so he could stay after graduation a little longer to learn more about it.

He named the project  Te Maeu, which means “the land,” and submitted a proposal for taking the system back to Kiribati to the 2016 Great Ideas Competition. He won first place in the social category.

The System

The hydroponic systems are built into tank tables that take advantage of the flooding by holding water and containing rocks. By having these tanks built into tables, rising tides will be able to pass without affecting crops, giving the Kiribati people ways to feed themselves despite losing land mass.

The water must be filtrated with air to let nutrients circulate in order to make plants grow, said Kateibwi. He uses a special organic nutrient called MPK, which he said is a chemical breakdown of nitrogen, phosphorus, and phosphate–nutrients essential for healthy plant growth. “The best part is the filtration pump is solar powered,” Kateibwi added.

Since Leaving BYUH, Kateibwi’s work is creating a dramatic change for his people, according to Harper. “Part of BYUH’s mission is to bring students from all over the world to learn how to become better leaders and take their knowledge home to improve their communities,” Harper added. He said Kateibwi has taken this philosophy into his own hands.

He has already taken this technology to Kiribati and shown it to scientists and government leaders to show how it can buy Kiribati some time as it continues to look for sustainable solutions to the overflow. It passed the testing phase after evaluation from the scientists. Now it is part of an intricate four-part plan to make Kiribati more sustainable.

In August, Kateibwi was named a regional finalist in the United Nations Young Champions of Earth competition, which offers $15,000 in funding and technical support to the top six winners.

Fulfilling the purpose of S.W.A.T.T.

Harper said Kateibwi’s work is the results he wanted to see accomplished through S.W.A.T.T., which is responsible for programs like Give N’ Take, the Free Rides bike program, and handing out free detergent at the Farmer’s Market.

Upon arriving at BYUH with his wife, Harper said he decided to create the S.W.A.T.T. for two reasons: To help students learn practical knowledge to accompany the things they learn in the classroom, and to create more sustainable programs on campus. He said, “When we came to BYU-Hawaii, we realized that there were numerous challenges that could be overcome through a hands-on approach with sustainability in mind. However, I soon recognized the value of combining my experience with the students’ enthusiasm and education.

“We give students practical knowledge, a hands-on approach to develop their talents. We make a lot of mistakes, but through that we create real success. In school you guys get the theoretical work, but here we get our hands dirty and figure out how we physically can get things done.

“Obtaining a degree alone does not solve all world problems. We feel that hands-on problem-solving, teamed with an academic degree, can broaden a student’s horizon while also improving our campus environment,” Harper said.

Date Published: 
Monday, October 9, 2017
Last Edited: 
Monday, October 9, 2017

NOTE: This story's online publication was delayed because it was featured in the Oct. 2017 print issue.