Preparing For Sea Level Rise, Islanders Leave Home The government of Kiribati, a set of islands in the Pacific Ocean, is worried that climate change and population pressure could make significant parts of the country uninhabitable within the century. With help from abroad, it has begun the slow process of familiarizing residents with nearby Australia.
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Preparing For Sea Level Rise, Islanders Leave Home

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Preparing For Sea Level Rise, Islanders Leave Home

Preparing For Sea Level Rise, Islanders Leave Home

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A new hit song has hit the airwaves in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. It poses a question that many people there are asking...

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing) Where we gonna go when the tsunami come? Where we gonna go now, you know? It's a global warming, it's coming, there's no way to stop it, no way to stop it...

INSKEEP: A song about global warming and tsunamis. Yesterday on our program we visited several of Kiribati's tiny islands. Many people are worried these islands could become uninhabitable in this century because of climate change and rising sea levels. This is a whole country that could go underwater.

Today we go to Australia, where a government program is helping some people move away from Kiribati in case one day all have to. Brian Reed has our story.

BRIAN REED: In 2008, when she was 20 years old, Tiibea Baure left Kiribati for the first time in her life and moved to the suburbs outside of Brisbane.

Ms. TIIBEA BAURE: My homestay mom told me this is our room and that's your room. Here's your key.

REED: Tiibea had never seen a stoplight. She had never been anywhere where she couldn't walk to the ocean in less than four minutes. She had never slept in a bed before - just on the ground with her extended family in the same room.

Ms. BAURE: When I close my door, it's like I'm home alone in that house. Because they hardly make noises, not like back in the island. They shout and they can sing anytime they want to sing, yeah.

REED: In a house nearby, Freda Ariera was having a similar experience with her homestay mom.

Ms. FREDA ARIERA: I found it very hard to sleep on the bed. So what I did, I put my bed away and I put a mat - 'cause I brought a traditional mat with me -put it on the floor and I just sleep there. She was very shocked 'cause one morning she came in and what are you doing? And I told her that I can't - I have to sleep on the floor.

REED: These episodes are actually a form of climate change adaptation, because Tiibea and Freda are on a special scholarship called The Kiribati Australia Nursing Initiative, or KANI, sponsored by Australia's foreign aid organization AusAID.

They have a number of programs like this to help Kiribati people get jobs, but KANI's different, because most of AusAID scholarships give people new skills and then require that they go back to their developing country so they can help the place out. KANI is giving people skills in case one day they don't have a country to go back to.

Unidentified Woman: There is one word I'm concerned about, and that is apparatus.

REED: More than 80 students are studying nursing here at Griffith University.

Unidentified Woman: What apparatus would you use if somebody needed oxygen (unintelligible) what would you use?

Unidentified People: (Unintelligible)

REED: The president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, has a phrase for what you're hearing right now: migrating with dignity.

President ANOTE TONG (Kiribati): What it means is that we don't just pack up our people from the villages and transport them to one center in Australia and say, OK, there you are. You know, they'd become second-class citizens.

REED: Instead, Tong wants to give people economic incentives to move away gradually so they have time to adapt. It's a way of dealing with two big problems: climate change and overpopulation. Even though there are 33 islands in Kiribati, nearly half the population is crammed onto just one of them, South Tarawa. One neighborhood there is more densely populated than Hong Kong. Already that puts a lot of pressure on the environment, and scientists say climate change will only make things worse.

So President Tong wants to start relocating some people, just in case.

President TONG: It's not nice to be planning the demise of your country. Nobody wants to do that. Who wants to lose his national identity? Nobody wants to do that. But can you give me any other option given the rising tide? No, you cannot.

Ms. BAURE: To imagine that Kiribati is sinking, and this is what always - it's like bothering me a lot.

REED: Tiibea Baure, the girl who thought her home statehouse was too quiet, says this very strange thought pops into her head often: What it'll be like if one day in her lifetime her country becomes unlivable.

Ms. BAURE: To live here in Australia, to think about that, that our culture won't exist or our race, then it's like that - we are nothing. And if my country sink, then I'm - it's like there's no use of exist as a human being, yeah. I think it's the most important part of me.

REED: To avoid thinking about this, Tiibea focuses on her schoolwork. She wants to do well so she can get a good job and bring her family to Australia, but there's a problem: It's hard to get your family to move because of climate change if your family doesn't believe in climate change.

There's a debate about this in Kiribati, whether or not the president is unnecessarily scaring people, and Tiibea is having this debate with her parents.

Ms. BAURE: Every time I talk with them, I try to convince them, every time, but...

REED: Every time you talk to your parents, you bring up climate change?

Ms. BAURE: Yeah. I always talk about if I have enough money, then I'll bring you over, 'cause I don't want you to die there when the land sinks. And then they, oh, our land won't sink at all. You can't do that. We don't want to go to Australia to live there.

REED: So you feel it's really important. Like you are on a mission to convince your parents.

Ms. BAURE: Oh, yes. To me that's what helps me to keep going. But sometimes I experience that I'm about to give up but that's one thing that always motivates me to endure to the end so that I can bring over my family. I don't want them to die when the land sinks.

(Soundbite of crosstalk and laughter)

REED: Meet the parents: Tiibea's dad, Baure Karakaua, and her mom, Batie Tebwa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

REED: We're sitting on the floor of their house in South Tarawa and right now everyone is cracking up at some joke that Tiibea's dad just made about climate change. My interpreter can barely compose herself.

Unidentified Woman (Interpreter): Worry a lot about it, you know, and he just said to me like, when the sea coming, God will come under our island and raise it up a bit higher, so why is she so worried about it?

REED: And that's - are you joking or do you think that's true?

Mr. BAURE KARAKAUA: (Foreign language spoken)

REED: It is true, says Tiibea's dad. I told him and his wife that the Earth has gotten warmer, that glaciers are melting, that sea levels have already risen, but nothing changed their minds. Here's Tiibea's mom.

Ms. BATIE TEBWA: I don't believe, because it's something beyond me. It's something beyond my knowledge and it's beyond my capacity to understand it. And we just believe that God will look after us and he will do his own way to save us.

(Soundbite of singing in foreign language)

REED: One night in Australia, I went to a party that KANI students threw. About 40 of them crowded onto the tile floor in one of their condos. Tiibea was there. There weren't enough traditional mats for everyone, so one girl ran to her place to get extras. Next to me a middle-aged woman began to cry. She moved here from Kiribati years ago to marry an Australian, and he had just died. She asked the students to sing at the funeral, and they were practicing for it.

(Soundbite of singing in foreign language)

REED: Four years ago there would have been just a handful of people in this Australian suburb who knew any Kiribati songs. Now there are close to 100.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Reed.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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