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Building sea walls no longer an option for some

By Stephanie March MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, March 7, 2011) - The President of Kiribati says an increasing number of coastal villagers are asking to be relocated because of rising sea waters.

Anote Tong says Kiribati is in urgent need of funding to build sea walls to prevent sea water destroying villages and crops.

President Tong has recently come back from a tour of Kiribati's outer islands.

He says the situation is dire.

"Previously [the villagers] used to ask us to build sea walls so they can stay on in the village," he said. "But this time around they said no, we are not asking you to build sea walls, we realize we have to relocate, can you as a government assist us with relocating."

President Tong attended a climate conference in Vanuatu last week, where the European Union unveiled more than US$120 million in funding for climate projects.

But he says none of it was earmarked to help those people on Kiribati's outer islands

"I am disappointed but I am not discouraged. I try not to be discouraged, we keep going," he said.

He warns that if more funding is not forthcoming in the near future, the government will have a much bigger problem on its hands.

"Here we are screaming out for money, we need money to come very shortly. If it doesn't happen within this year I can guarantee more communities will be asking government to assist in relocation, not protection."

Mr. Tong says he also faces challenges in convincing his own people that the future of the island nation is in jeopardy.

"The older generation they are not too interested in climate change because it really won't affect them in coming years," he said.

Kiritbati's future hinges largely on the nation's young people. Spread across 33 separate islands, educating them about environmental change is a huge challenge.

President Tong says in many remote parts of the country, young people have limited access to information about climate change, causing them confusion and anxiety.

Teako Otia, 17 years old, is one of a small number of students in Kiribati involved in climate activism.

She is part of a group of students that travel around to different communities doing dramas and holding discussions on the issue of climate change.

Ms. Otia says her aim to raise awareness of climate change and the effects it will have on her country.

"Most students don't know, but a few are aware of the climate change and it's effects," she said. "My objective for myself is I want all Kiribati to be aware. Like not a few people. Like most people are very skeptic, like they do know but they don't want to take action.What I want is to unite people to help and fight off the challenges. Like, we have a little contribution, but if we unite and show our strong feeling for the changes that we face maybe other countries will be easily convinced and help us out."

Despite Teako's enthusiasm, sea waters are rising faster than the nation can cope. One part of the government's strategy is to look at ways to relocate i-Kiribati, both within and outside the country.

President Tong says the concept of 'climate refugees' is too controversial for the international community to realistically consider.

He says the government is trying to facilitate ways for its people to migrate on the basis of the skills they can offer a new country, rather than the urgency of their need to relocate

"We have schemes both with Australia and New Zealand, and of course they would never say that it's a response to climate change, because that would bring in a flood of similar applications or requests for similar schemes, we understand that."

"So it's been positive, I don't think we can expect much more at this point time. We continue to ask if anybody would simply take our people in, but that has not been possible up until now."

While migration is a hard concept to sell to neighboring countries, it's also not something that appeals some young I-Kiribati, like Teako Otia.

"I don't like the idea of being moved from one country to another. For me Kiribati is where I belong. Being a stranger in another place is very difficult. If there is no solution I would be very sad to leave my country."


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