That sinking feeling

Their island nation on the verge of disappearing due to sea level rise, citizens of Tuvalu prepare for repatriation.

World Reports

Tuvalu is one of the smallest and most remote countries on earth. About halfway between Hawaii and Australia, it is one of the nine tiny atolls in the South Pacific that represent the Oceania island group. They’re studded with coconut palms and chalk white beaches. One imagines Robinson Crusoe might have washed up on such a place. Yet tragedy is on the horizon. With predicted sea level increases of up to 88cm in the next century, the islanders are facing the imminent possibility that Tuvalu may follow Atlantis to a watery grave.

In 1997, at the now-famous Kyoto conference convened to discuss climate change, Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Koloa Talake delivered an impassioned speech to the world’s leaders, imploring them to act immediately:

    There is an asserted consensus that binding significant targets to reduce greenhouse gases are essential, if the catastrophic impacts of climate change on the livelihood and existence of people are to be limited….For the people of low-lying island states of the world, however, and certainly of my small island country of Tuvalu in the Pacific, this is no longer a debatable argument. The impacts of global warming on our islands are real, and are already threatening our very survival and existence.

Unfortunately, Talake’s plea seemed to fall on deaf ears. Neither America or Australia — the two countries with the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions — ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Now, five years later and already facing major floods, Tuvalu prepares itself for repatriation. Starting this year, 75 Tuvalans will be relocated to New Zealand each year.

The prime minister, meanwhile, has hired law firms in both the US and Australia to help them build a court case against the world’s greenhouse polluters. He plans to take the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. Australian legal experts have warned their government to take the suit seriously, especially since it accepts the judgement of the International Court of Justice without reservation. Whatever the outcome, the court case will certainly attract worldwide media attention.

For now, life is relatively peaceful for Tuvalu’s 11,000 inhabitants. Subsistence agriculture and fishing still form the basis of the country’s economy, though in recent years the sale of territorial shipping rights to the international fisheries has pumped much needed money into the country. But the locals are very aware of what may be in store for them. As one of the most isolated nations on earth, the sea plays an integral role in their lives. They maintain a healthy respect for it. The fisherman have been among the first to notice the everyday effects of climate change. Many of the big islands that surround Tuvalu have shrunk to less than half their original size.

It will most probably not be complete inundation, however, that spells disaster for Tuvalu. Before the island is completely submerged, increasingly frequent storms will simply make life impossible on the island. Higher tides will increase the salinity of the soil to such an extent that the Tuvaluans’ traditional crops such as pulaka will be unable to survive.

Looming repatriation has cast a gloomy shadow over this tranquil place. Those who are not already planning migration cannot help but consider it as, one by one, their friends and neighbors desert the sinking ship. Yet despite New Zealand’s warm welcome, some islanders hold serious reservations about the quality of life in an industrialized country.

Equally serious questions are raised about Tuvalu’s economic future once people have left. Will they still retain the rights to the territorial waters? Can they ever be compensated for the loss of their entire culture beneath the waves and, if so, at whose feet can the bill be laid? Andrews Sims, a leading expert in the field of “ecological debt” suggests that such questions will become more and more pertinent as the long-term crises provoked by richer countries come to fruition. “Ecological debt, where the rich take up more than their share of a finite environmental space, gives developing countries the moral high ground in international negotiations. There should be no question now of poor countries giving one cent of unpayable debt service to any rich country creditor before ecological debts are reconciled.”

Australia responded recently to criticisms of its environmental stance with a report from its National Tidal Facility (NTF), which declared there to be “no visible evidence of an acceleration in sea level trends.” Instead, Bill Mitchell of the NTF suggested the islanders themselves were responsible for the flooding due to cutting down too many coconut palms, population density, and poor environmental management.

Tuvalu has responded with derision to Australia’s rebuff, pointing to statistics from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). An independent Greenpeace report also predicts a palpable

sea rise, concluding Tuvalu and Kiribati to be “the most vulnerable countries.”

Feelings between the two nations have worsened further still, in recent months, after Australia’s refusal to grant Tuvaluans any immigration rights. In conversation with the BBC, Paani Laupepa, Tuvalu’s Assistant Secretary of Natural Resources, Energy and Environment, said “While New Zealand responded positively in the true Pacific way of helping one’s neighbors, Australia on the other hand has slammed the door in our face.”

Australia, perhaps wishing to hammer its stance home, has since asked Tuvalu to shelter Middle Eastern asylum seekers on their own turf. Since August 2001, Australia has turned away almost 2000 asylum seekers, referring them to the smaller Pacific nations to have their claims processed. Tuvalu Government spokesman Panapa Nelesone has said: “We ask them for space and now they’re sending us their own people.”

The forecast looks bad indeed for Tuvalu. Other island and coastal nations will be next. Though polluters are doing their best to look the other way, the evidence is already overpowering that catastrophic climate change is on its way. The 1990s was the hottest decade ever recorded, glaciers at both poles are in retreat, and Kilimanjaro’s snows are receding. Without caps on greenhouse emissions, the myth of Atlantis may soon become a reality.

Piers Moore Ede is a freelance writer in London.

Take Action: Earth Island’s Climate Solutions project is working to make the Pacific Northwest a leader in solutions to climate change, as well as to inspire similar initiatives in other regions. Visit, or write Climate Solutions, 610 4th Avenue E., Olympia, WA 98501

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