Reaching out before the wave of high water

(Edmonton) An island nation threatened by rising sea levels from climate change is eyeing Alberta, and possibly the University of Alberta, as partners in relocating and training its people.

A delegation from the Republic of Kiribati, a chain of 33 low-lying islands in the South Pacific, visited Alberta and the U of A in late December to explore educational and training opportunities. More than 90,000 people are expected to be displaced from the island nation within 50 to 100 years, as rising sea levels contaminate their fresh water supply.

“We want our people to learn the expectations of other countries and vice versa,” said Tebao Awerika, secretary of Kiribati’s Ministry of Labour and Human Resource Development, who accompanied Minister Ioteba Redfern during the Alberta visit. “We don’t want to be classified as climate refugees. We want to migrate with dignity.”

Located approximately 2,000 kilometres north of Fiji, Kiribati (pronounced Kiribass) is becoming increasingly vulnerable to the rising Pacific Ocean. Its populated regions are less than three metres above sea level and salt water is already penetrating and polluting island water tables. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates Kiribati will become completely uninhabitable within 50 to 100 years, making it the first country expected to disappear due to climate change.

While the country is implementing water-supply management strategies to stave off the threat, the Kiribati government acknowledges its people will be forced to relocate and resettle. That’s why the government is developing offshore education and employment linkages now, so citizens can migrate more easily in the future.

Kiribati already has workers abroad in countries such as Germany and Australia. The country has also developed an Australian educational link where students complete an 18-month nursing diploma at the Metropolitan South Institute of TAFE, a vocational institute in Queensland. Upon completion, students will have the option to complete a one-year work placement in Australia or matriculate into the Griffith’s bachelor of nursing program.

The visit to Alberta stemmed from a conversation between Awerika and the High Commission of Canada in Wellington, New Zealand, plus a chance meeting with an Alberta engineer who mentioned the labour shortage in Alberta’s oilsands. The delegation met with private industry in Fort McMurray before meeting with officials from the U of A.

While no formal commitment could be extended, Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President (International) Britta Baron said the U of A is open to exploring opportunities with the Kiribati government, such as sponsored student agreements for qualified graduate students.

“This university feels very strongly about sustainability and responsibility, not only in our own environment, but also globally,” said Baron, adding the U of A could have a role in an overall Alberta response.