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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Performing to Save Island Nations

Air Date: Week of

A trio of dancers from the island nation of Kiribati (Water Is Rising)

For twenty years, low-lying Pacific Island nations have tried to persuade developing countries to reduce their carbon emissions so sea level rise doesn’t swamp their countries. Now 36 island performers bring their plea directly to American audiences in The Water Is Rising tour. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet attended the opening performances and has our report.


GELLERMAN: Part of the problem is that the nations are so remote. So to raise awareness about their plight, artists from 36 Pacific island countries have come to the United States to perform in 13 cities a show that they call: “Water is Rising.” Living On Earth's Ingrid Lobet was at opening night.


LOBET: The artists journeyed from Kiribati, Tokelau and Tuvalu. From the most remote islands: Tokelau, the trip took weeks – beginning with a 40-hour boat trip to Samoa. Andrew Semeli of Tuvalu spoke at UCLA to the tour's first audience.

SEMELI: The trip to America takes a long way to go. And we make an effort, to paddle our canoe right from the Pacific Ocean to your ocean, just for you to hear our voice, my brothers and sisters. Just for you to know how vulnerable we are.

LOBET: The vulnerability in these performances is searing. Paddling a canoe becomes a dance, and the paddlers pray, in song, that their islands rise from the waters. Smiling as they hold grass weavings, dancer sing of pride in the materials God gave to them to use forever. What's the purpose of this culture, they sing, if it's going to disappear beneath the water?


LOBET: Male dancers strike their grass skirts in thunderous percussion.


SEMELI: When I talk about climate change, it makes my tears fall, every time. The tallest part of Tuvalu is a coconut tree - the tallest coconut tree. We have no mountains that give us hopes when come the sea level rise. When sea level comes up, where should we run to?

LOBET: With such questions, the artists hope to lead audiences to commit to lower energy use. But considering the divide between their land and this one, the message arrives like tidings from some immeasurably distant and kind place. The songs celebrate community. One shanty warns fishers to return to share their tuna catch with the whole village and “don't be selfish.”

SEMELI: And we are here to kindly ask, and we are here to look for a shoulder to lean on, and my brothers and sisters from the United States, please give us a shoulder to lean on.


LOBET: On this day, the artists share the stage with perhaps the most powerful environmental official in the world: Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board. She spends more time than most people listening to testimony about climate change, but not this kind.


NICHOLS: This is not political. This is not what we're used to discussing when we talk about climate change. And maybe part of the problem that we've had in this country is that for most people, climate change is something very remote, very distant, very far away.

LOBET: Climate scientist Alex Hall compared what he saw on the stage to his own daily work discerning how the planet's ice sheets will respond, trying to predict sea level rise.

HALL: I was just really struck as I was watching these dancers by how irrelevant the science seems. I was thinking about what I could say up here, and I was thinking: I really wish that I could do my own dance to illustrate all these points.

LOBET: For the islanders, climate change is here. They live on narrow strips of curved sand - ocean on one side, lagoon on the other. Saltwater is already intruding on their gardens and during storms, washing over the street. On Tokelau, Teina Tuta Laura Tumua says residents are working daily to build a seawall.

Kiribati dancers in traditional costumes. (Water Is Rising)

TUMUA: Well, I wish that the United States can help our country. Because Tokelua is creating our seawall to help keep the land inside because it's been taken and… yes, taken by the waves.

LOBET: Tiny Tokelau is also trying to become independent of imported fuel and get its energy from solar collectors. The idea of bringing 36 artists here to tell their stories in person was Judy Mitoma's. She's director for Intercultural Performance at UCLA and first encountered people from the atoll nations at college, in Hawaii.

MITOMA: I could see these small atoll cultures have a very unique approach to their music and dance, so climate change aside, their culture, their civilization really struck me and my friends as being unique and powerful.

LOBET: Now decades later, she's organized this tour of nine states and the District of Columbia. Mitoma says an ebbing sense of urgency on climate change in this country doesn't matter.

MITOMA: I have an audience of 1,000 people and I know there is somebody in that audience that’s going to be changed by this effort.

LOBET: The artists of The Water Is Rising tour are on the road now, taking in the cities, highways and industry of an impossibly large country, with an eye to what that is costing them. For Living On Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet.


[MUSIC: Music recorded on site from Water Is Rising by producer Ingrid Lobet.]

[SONG TRANSLATION: Dear God, Answer our prayers for help.
Let our islands rise up from the waters.

ACT 2 “Te Kamei (Climate Change)”
Come along, come along!
Let us celebrate this day.
Kiribati is here to share our story.
To the developed countries,
We ask for your help.
Let us work together to reduce consumption
And save our precious islands.
Thank you “Water Is Rising”
For giving us the opportunity
To share our story with you.


My culture and language,
My values and my beauty,
They might be gone forever,
Because of your unloving ways.
My brothers and sisters,
Please listen to us.
Love us for who we are.
Now, please. Now, now, now.
What is the purpose of our culture
If we sink?]



Water Is Rising tour info

Kiribati documentary on climate change

Tuvalu documentary on climate change


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