Tuvalu: Swallowed by the Sea
[published by the Hindustan Times, 3 January 2008]
As the sea gently but insistently gurgles its way up through the pearly sand and dense vegetation, the fate of this narrow, crescent-shaped islet of coral rock, palm trees and ramshackle houses seems sealed. Beaches have been washed away and a whole atoll already lost to the gaping swallows of the ocean. And with it, fear the islanders who call this place home, follows their culture.
After years of sea-level rise being a debate confined to the air-conditioned offices and hushed tones of UN diplomats, the sinking landmass of Tuvalu, a string of nine coral islands and atolls sparkling in the South Pacific, stands as tangible proof that global warming is no abstract danger but, in fact, a daily reality. Like the polar bear clinging onto the last ice floe in a sea of melting caps, Tuvalu’s slow descent into the Pacific Ocean warns the world of what is yet to come. But what, if anything, can be done to save it?
Once a British protectorate known as the Ellice Islands, Tuvalu lies 1,000 km north of Fiji in a remote corner of the deep blue Pacific Ocean, midway between Hawaii and Australia. Twice weekly, a tiny 20-seater plane buzzes the two-hour journey from Suva over deserted atolls and coral reefs before landing precariously on the sliver of land that comprises Tuvalu’s capital island, Funafuti, a slice of beach surrounded by tiny, sandy islets with single palm trees poking up out of the sea. Half of Tuvalu’s population of 10,500 lives on this crescent, two miles long by one-half mile wide, a land so skinny and flat that from almost everywhere on the island, one can see both the turquoise lagoon on one side and the dark blue Pacific on the other.
If it weren’t for its white sandy beaches and aquamarine waters, Tuvalu could be considered the worst place on earth. Battling rising oceans on a land whose highest point is but four metres above sea level, the island loses bits and pieces of itself every year during the king tides, when waves pummel it from all sides and the country’s water table becomes so high that saltwater seeps straight up through the porous coral rock into homes, onto roads and around schools. Corrugated iron shacks dangle perilously over cavernous pits that serve as makeshift dumps, dug out by American soldiers to build a runway during World War II, which pockmark the length of the island with their hazardous mess of human and pig waste that spills during king tides into homes and over into the sea. With no potable water supply, no waste management system and no trash disposal facilities, Tuvalu is, in no uncertain terms, a hovel on a bit of coral rock in the middle of nowhere.
AN IRREVERSIBLE FATE
Armed with photos of king tides from the past decade and an in-depth understanding of global warming, Hilia Vavae, the director ofTuvalu’s Meteorological Office, considers Tuvalu’s fate irreversible. “If it’s taken around 10 years for the middle of Funafuti to flood,” she says, her long brown fingers pointing to the low water table a decade ago, “then I can only expect that in the next 10 years, the whole island will be watered down.”
Her estimates are more rushed than the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, whose prognosis expects another 50 years forTuvalu. But the islanders believe Ms Vavae over the IPCC: Funafuti’s tidal gauge measures sea level rise on the island at 5.6mm a year, twice the average global rate, and the Met Office walls are adorned with photos of children surfing past the front door, which, five years ago, never used to flood at all.
But Tuvaluans, most of whom live only one to two metres above sea level, are less concerned with the increasing high tides than they are with the erratic weather patterns that global warming has brought. Increasingly devastating cyclones, coupled with a king tide, could wipe out all nine atolls in a heartbeat, in the same way that cyclones shipwrecked a Dutch liner on Funafuti’s shores and swallowed up one of its islets in the late 1990s. Its palm trees now lie lifeless at the bottom of the sea, the islet reduced to coral rubble: indicators, islanders say, of what awaits their larger atolls.
CHANGING WEATHER, LIFESTYLE
The nation survived until recently, for the most part, by farming and fishing. But all that changed with global warming: rising sea levels have poisoned traditional root crops like taro and pulaka, and coral bleaching has required fishermen to venture further afield with fewer returns, forcing dependency on imported foodstuffs and bottled water. Tuvalu was consequently obliged to earn a higher income, so it sold its country code to phone-sex operators in Germany and its internet “.tv” domain name for $50 million to a Silicon Valley company.
The country’s sudden economic influx allowed it to repave its roads and buy new SUVs, home appliances, mobile phones and mopeds. The rest of the money was used to join the UN, where it lobbies for help from industrialised nations in its fight for survival against global warming. Today, when you walk the only road on the island, you can see the old refrigerators and cars rusting sullenly on the beach, where they have been dumped unwanted, their brand new replacements hurtling past you on their brand new asphalt road.
And yet, even here, in a country where sea-level rise is as tangible as the picture-perfect sunsets over the Pacific, climate change wasn’t always so easy a concept to accept. Older villagers, devout Christians, still cite God’s promise to Noah that the earth will never again be flooded, while younger Tuvaluans are taught about greenhouse gases and global warming at school.
LEARNING TO ADAPT
And Tuvalu is adapting: foreign ministries and charities have helped educate locals on sustainability, such as building houses on stilts and exchanging diesel generators for manure-fuelled methane gas. The Government, while lamenting the continued carbon emissions of the larger, industrialised nations, is doing its best to convince locals to walk instead of drive and to compost their kitchen waste.
But for a nation being eroded daily by sea, adaptation just seems to stave off the inevitable. With most of the islands’ natural mangrove undergrowth having been burned for fuel, there is nowhere for the seawater to go but up, no natural sponge to stem the tides when they come from all sides or, even, from below.
So most Tuvaluans – a smiling, gracious, Polynesian-descended bunch decked out in Hawaiian t-shirts and board shorts – are jumping ship. Already more than 4,000 have fled to nearby New Zealand as the world’s first environmental refugees, and most of the remaining 10,500 are planning to join them there or be repatriated in Fiji or Australia.
But Ms Vavae, like other obstinate Tuvaluans, tells me that she will never abandon Tuvalu. “I don’t want to leave,” she says defiantly. “Why should we have to move elsewhere when we could dredge sand from the lagoon and build up the island on higher ground?”
Such a scheme is possible, and would cost an estimated $3 million to complete. But with carbon emissions unlikely to diminish drastically in the next few years, it seems improbable that even a fortress of sea walls on raised ground would save Tuvalu from an ocean that seems determined, sooner rather than later, to swallow it whole.
AT AN EDGE
As Ms Vavae, the Met Office Director, issued a radio announcement warning islanders of the impending king tide, Leilana Silo stood in her doorway, ankle-deep in water, attempting to sweep out with a broom the growing flood in her living room. The two-metre deep burrow pit at her back door had already filled with water from the king tide and was now seeping into her front room.
“I would like to leave this place,” she said, broom in hand, as her children jumped into the water-filled pit, their heads bobbing alongside 7-Up cans and bottles of engine oil and anti-freeze, their joyous cries drowning out her warnings to be careful. “But I don’t have the money to leave, and I don’t have a job to go to.”
To be repatriated in New Zealand, Tuvaluans must provide proof of employment with a salary nearly twenty-times their average annual income. So for those Tuvaluans who haven’t yet fled, perhaps it’s because they cannot, rather than they do not want to.
KEEPING TRADITIONS ALIVE
But for the few, like Ms Vavae, who could leave but refuse to do so, it is not just about losing one’s land that makes them want to stay: as more and more people flee the sinking isles, the number of people who can keep alive Tuvalu’s traditions, like fatele – a centuries-old traditional dance – are seriously dwindling. Younger generations seem more concerned with the survival of their family than of customs, and if they haven’t left yet, most, when asked, say they plan on taking their turquoise-coloured passports over the turquoise-coloured sea, never to return.
“Tuvaluans will be Tuvaluans only by name in the future,” sighs former PM Saufatu Sopoanga, who winces at the idea of abandoning his motherland but is preparing for it, nonetheless. “What is a people without a land? It is a diaspora, a people without a culture, without a sense of self.”
He grips his hands together tightly and then says, ever so softly, “But you cannot have a national identity if you haven’t got the nation to go with it.”