TUVALU: Going down
Source: Copyright 2002, Guardian
By: Patrick Barkham
Tuvalu, a nation of nine islands - specks in the South Pacific - is in
danger of vanishing, a victim of global warming. As their homeland is
battered by ferocious cyclones and slowly submerges under the encroaching
sea, what will become of the islanders?
The dazzling white sand and dark green coconut palms of Tepuka Savilivili
were much like those on dozens of other small islets within sight of
Funafuti, the atoll capital of Tuvalu. But shortly after cyclones Gavin,
Hina and Kelly had paid the tiny Pacific nation a visit, islanders looked
across Funafuti's coral lagoon and noticed a gap on the horizon. Tepuka
Savilivili had vanished. Fifty hectares of Tuvalu disappeared into the sea
during the 1997 storms. The tiny country's precious 10 square miles of
land were starting to disappear.
Five years on, the government of Tuvalu has noticed many such troubling
changes on its nine inhabited islands and concluded that, as one of the
smallest and lowest-lying countries in the world, it is destined to become
the first nation sunk by global warming. The evidence before their own
eyes - and forecasts for a rise in sea level of up to 88cm in the next
century made by international scientists - has convinced most of Tuvalu's
10,500 inhabitants that rising seas and more frequent violent storms are
certain to make life unliveable on the islands, if not for them, then for
their children. A deal has been signed with New Zealand, in which 75
Tuvaluans will be resettled there each year, starting now. As the vast
expanse of the Pacific Ocean creeps up on to Tuvalu's doorstep, the
evacuation and shutting down of a nation has begun.
With the curtains closed against the tropical glare, the prime minister,
Koloa Talake, works in a flimsy Portakabin at the lagoon's edge on
Funafuti. Tuvalu's largest island is a crowded, uninhabitable-looking line
in the ocean, smaller than Hampstead Heath in London. You are never more
than 150 metres from the sea and the air has a permanently salty tang.
Talake, who sits at his desk wearing flip-flops and bears a passing
resemblance to Nelson Mandela, likens his task to the captain of a ship:
"The skipper of the boat is always the last man to leave a sinking ship or
goes down with the ship. If that happens to Tuvalu, the prime minister
will be the last person to leave the island."
Talake realises that his government cannot simply order people off the
islands, but must balance the continued development of the country -
embracing sealed roads, telephones and the internet - with the
precautionary evacuation of the most vulnerable. The prospect of rising
seas or tropical storms engulfing their nation has left Tuvalu's deeply
Christian people grappling with a fear of the ocean, a belief that God
won't flood their land, and anxiety that their culture might not survive
transplantation to a developed western nation such as New Zealand.
The highest point on Tuvalu is just four metres above sea level. From the
air, its islands are thin slashes of green against the aquamarine water.
From a few miles out at sea, the nation's numerous tiny uninhabited islets
look smaller than a container ship and soon slip below the horizon. On a
map, the islands are pinpricks south of the equator, only visible because
the international dateline does them the courtesy of swerving east to
avoid them. A Spanish explorer spotted an island in the 16th century, but
it was another 200 years before storms pitched the first missionary on to
Tuvalu's coral atolls, which were named the Ellice Islands and subsumed
into the British Empire.
Hardly any tourists take the 22-seater plane from Fiji that touches down
at Funafuti twice a week (travel agents think you're having a laugh when
you quote the airport code: Fun). For the rest of the week, islanders
sleep on the runway at night (where they can enjoy a cooling breeze), and
pigs, bicycles and games of football and rugby traverse the airstrip by
day. Eight of Tuvalu's nine inhabited islands have no cars or internet.
Daily life on Tuvalu revolves around the ocean. It is the islands' garden,
washroom, swimming pool and slaughterhouse. As dawn quickly rises on the
island, men and women stand neck-deep in the sea, eating fish and bits of
coconut, or periodically raising pans they are silently scrubbing beneath
the surface of the water. At midday, a father and son heave four pigs into
the lagoon for slicing up; the pigs' slashed-open bellies turn the water
red and their entrails drift off on the ocean. At dusk, islanders gather
on motorbikes to watch the sunset from the low concrete jetties jutting
out into the lagoon. Children slide down algae-covered boat ramps into the
water and a man clutches a fish the size of a dog to his chest.
The Pacific Ocean brings relative prosperity. Tuvalu sells licences
permitting the US, Japan and others to fish in its 350,000sq miles of
territorial waters. Money is bringing change - and lots of motorbikes.
Most islanders stand with one foot in the cash economy and one in the
traditional realm of subsistence farming and fishing. Extended families
live together, with some members tending a small pen of pigs or dropping a
line from a boat to fish for their suppers, while others bring in a wage
by working for the government, or go overseas to study at the University
of the South Pacific in Fiji. Education is greatly valued, and the
island's only ship spends much of its time ferrying young Tuvaluans to the
second largest island Vaitupu, where girls and boys board at the country's
only secondary school.
Many of the nation's young lads then join the maritime training school, a
thriving government enterprise that teaches modern shipping lore.
Employment agencies snap up the young Tuvaluans, who are renowned for
their knowledge of the ocean, work ethic and strength. At any one time,
more than 600 Tuvaluan men are labouring on container ships at sea. The
money sent home by family-minded Tuvaluan sailors has trebled to more than
A$4m (£1.5m) in the past three years.
Islanders still fish around Tuvalu in small wooden boats and every year
several go missing, drifting to oblivion after losing sight of their
low-lying land. "Personally, I am very worried about sea-level rising,
because I don't want to be caught. Drowning is a dreadful death," says
Talake, motioning with his hand to indicate the waters rising above his
Tropical storms have also long frightened the islanders - and now global
warming appears to be bringing more each wet season. Talake vividly
recalls Hurricane Bebe, which destroyed 800 homes on Funafuti in 1972. "At
5pm, I was at the airstrip up to my knees in water. Kids were paddling
about in canoes. In the evening, when the wind turned west and began
blowing really hard, the police came round telling people that the eye of
the hurricane was coming. A few metres from our house, the water was up to
our hips. At 9pm, we headed for high land with our kids. Another couple
had got there before us and were hiding there under bamboo mats. They felt
sorry for us and offered us shelter. We were lucky to survive. If the
water really rises and you cannot find anything to hold on to, the current
will take you away and then you die. So we worry about getting to that
Like many Pacific islanders, Tuvaluans are open and easygoing - as you
have to be in the tropical humidity - and don't give the impression of
being easily worried. They know all about the outside world. Many on
Funafuti have travelled further and wider than westerners, working on
ships around the world, getting an education in Fiji, or visiting
relatives in New Zealand. Most are keenly aware of the likely effects of
global warming and sea-level rise thanks, not least, to island radio
(which alternates days of traditional Tuvaluan and Pacific Island songs
with Britney Spears and Billy Ocean).
Iopu Iupasi leans against a palm by a pigpen in the shade of his backyard.
He worked at sea for 22 years before turning to traditional life. He
fishes for snapper, yellowfin tuna, marlin, swordfish, and, at night,
takes a torch and what looks like an oversized butterfly net to pluck
flying fish out of the air on the pitch-black ocean. He has noticed the
erosion on the islands such as Tepuka Savilivili. "I look at the small
islands - before they were big ones, eh? Now it is all gone, so I think I
believe in sea-level rise." He points to the rough coral shoreline, where
his backyard ends. "My beach here used to be about four metres. Now it is
nearly coming up to the house. We used to have sea walls, but it is
useless. They don't work."
Sam Vaiku stands under a blue plastic canopy where he is building a wooden
fishing boat. Aged 70, he attributes his huge muscles to hard work and
toddy - fermented and mildly hallucinogenic coconut milk - which he drinks
in moderation at mealtimes. He has also noticed a loss of trees on the
small islands around Funafuti where he fishes. But he has faith that the
islanders will be spared
Tuvalu is one of the most Christian countries in the world. Early
missionaries reported how ready the placid Polynesian Tuvaluans were to
convert compared with the "difficult" Melanesian peoples of Fiji and Papua
New Guinea. While there is a neat mosque on the island, more than 97% of
the islanders are Christians. "There is a strong belief in the story about
Noah's Ark, and God's covenant that he will not flood the earth again,"
says Paani Laupepa, the assistant secretary of Tuvalu's environment
department. "We are trying to explain the scientific facts to Christian
people. It is coming through slowly."
The Reverend Pitoi Etuati retreats into his sparse, white-washed church to
escape his young children. Like most people on the island, he lives in a
simple two-roomed house. His church is a large hall, with matting woven
from pandanus leaves for his 1,000- strong congregation to sit on. Unlike
many Tuvaluan clergy, he understands that, while the seas may not rise to
cover the islands in his lifetime, "it is going to happen, if not in our
time, then in the future".
"Conservative Christians would say I am not a faithful pastor because I am
giving up now. But we cannot think that, because we are Christian, God
will do everything for us. You have faith, you work and accept. It might
be God's ways to inform us that there will be a time when this island
sinks, so we have to push our government to make arrangements so we can be
refugees, if not in our time then for the coming generation."
While Tuvaluans debate issues of faith, scientists in the region continue
to argue over whether Tuvalu is yet experiencing rising sea levels. The
National Tidal Facility (NTF), based at Flinders University in Adelaide,
recently published figures from its tide gauge on Tuvalu that recorded no
rise in average tide levels since record-keeping began in 1993. The
findings were used by the Australian government in November last year to
justify its rejection of Tuvalu's request that it admit a small number of
islanders every year as "environmental refugees". (To add insult to
injury, the Australians later informally asked Tuvalu whether it could
find room on its 10 square miles for boat people refused entry into
Australia. Tuvalu politely turned down the request.)
Perched on the prow of a small wooden boat, Hilia Vavae, director of
Tuvalu's meteorological office, heads across the lagoon, eventually
spotting a forlorn sandy dome. It is all that is left of Tepuka Savilivili,
the islet that vanished after the 1997 storms. Today there is nothing
living left on the few metres of sand, only several odd flip-flops and a
rusty tin. Further south is Vasuaafua, an island of nine coconut palms
clinging to a scrap of sand. Vavae points to a small sand cliff:
"Erosion," she grimaces. Two years ago, the island was buttressed by
several hundred yards of beach.
Vavae's meteorological office is huddled next to the airstrip on Funafuti.
This is where research meets the reality of climate change. Vavae has a
picture on her wall from the highest tide last year, in which she and her
staff are standing on their office doorstep, up to their ankles in water.
She quietly explains that NTF's scientists have misrepresented their data.
"Their analysis of their information is correct, but it is inappropriate,"
she says. "You need to look at the extremes - examining average sea levels
doesn't reflect the impacts that the small island states are facing." It
only takes one high tide to permanently wash away fragile soil or kill the
precious vegetation that holds small islands together. Tuvalu's highest
tide gets higher, its low tides lower, and so NTF's "average" stays the
same. There is another, less well publicised tide gauge on Tuvalu - also
focusing on tidal averages - run by the University of Hawaii's sea level
centre, covering a much longer period, from 1976 to 2000. It has recorded
a 2.2cm rise per decade in average sea levels.
Vavae has plenty more evidence of global warming in the 20 years she has
been working in the met office. Higher tides are flooding the island more
frequently. "In the mid-1980s, it was only February. Now it is November,
December, January, February and March," she says. One or two serious
cyclones used to hit Tuvalu every decade. In the 1990s, the islands faced
seven. Floods and storms cause more erosion. Several outer island farmers
report that their crops of pulaka - swamp taro, a traditional
accompaniment to fish - have yellowed and yielded less in recent seasons,
a probable sign of rising salinity.
Like the government, and the scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change, who predict a sea-level rise of up to 88cm in the next
century, she believes the islands will not simply be swamped by water. It
is far more likely that the ferocity and frequency of storms and high
tides will simply make Tuvaluan daily life untenable.
Regional analysts in Sydney scathingly refer to the South Pacific as a
"basket case". The island nations are characterised by government
corruption, corporate exploitation and, with a population explosion in
most Pacific countries, ethnic tension over increasingly scarce land. The
economy of Fiji, the Pacific's hub, has yet to recover from the disastrous
coup in 2000, triggered by tension between indigenous landowners and
Fijian Indians. Papua New Guinea's rainforests are being plundered as the
government struggles to maintain law and order. The Solomon Islands lie
ruined by civil war, while Nauru is a virtually bankrupt detention centre
for 1,118 migrants unwanted by Australia.
Against this backdrop, the Tuvaluan government is a beacon of sanity. The
only national tax is a A$10 (£3.60) annual levy on the islanders, but the
government raises funds through a trust fund it created in 1987, which has
grown from A$27m (£9.9m) to more than A$60m. There are rumblings of
discontent: four PMs in the past three years have left many local people
murmuring that ministers put self-interest above the general good. Aid
agencies privately expressed misgivings after the government made an
uncharacteristically large withdrawal from its trust fund last year to
cover ambitious spending programmes. Tuvalu's government counters: "It is
a good thing to keep on developing," says Talake. "If you reduced
development because of the rising sea level, you would be discouraging or
frightening your own people."
A government-funded road sweeps from one end of Funafuti to the other,
awaiting surfacing, and the new A$14m (£5m) government office will become
the island's tallest building - three storeys - when it is constructed
with money donated by Taiwan later this year. A new hospital is planned:
there are three HIV-positive Tuvaluans, but diabetes and heart disease are
more serious problems, as naturally large islanders gradually replace
their traditional fish diet with all the corned beef and fizzy drinks
their wages can buy. It may not live to see its centenary as an
independent nation, but the country is still determined to develop
politically as well as physically: a referendum is planned this year to
see if Tuvaluans want to discard the Queen as head of state and become a
In choosing independence and its own name, Tuvalu also had a strange
stroke of financial fortune. When country code top-level domain names were
shared out, most countries got a mundane ".uk" or ".fr". Tuvalu was
granted the eminently marketable ".tv", and sold the right to license it
for US$50m (£35m) to American entrepreneurs. In a separate deal, Tuvalu is
now guaranteed an annual payment of US$2m per year "in perpetuity".
Virtual Tuvalu could now outlive real Tuvalu.
The next stop on the Tuvaluan government's international campaign is the
commonwealth heads of government meeting in Brisbane on March 2.
A new member of the old colonial club, Tuvalu will use its "maiden" speech
to tell Tony Blair, the Queen and leaders from the other 53 commonwealth
nations about the ocean tides creeping up Tuvalu's narrow beaches.
But no amount of sympathy, aid or dot.com cash could construct a viable
sea defence system for the islands. Funafuti is little more than a flimsy
sea wall, a wafer-thin curving strip of land shielding the coral lagoon
from the four-mile depths of the South Pacific. What happens if Tuvalu
does lose its land? Does it lose its sovereignty over that area? Who gets
access to Tuvalu's territorial oceans? How can exiled Tuvaluans benefit
from this distant patch of water? "This is unprecedented stuff," says
Greenpeace's Angenette Heffernan. She predicts that under-resourced
Pacific countries will have to lobby to change the UN law of the sea to
ensure that if they lose their land, at least their waters are protected.
Tuvalu's resettlement plan begins this year. Priority will be given to
those who don't own any land on Tuvalu or who live in particularly
vulnerable areas. Panapase Nelesone, the government's chief secretary,
says they will not allow their most educated or skilled citizens to take
up the offer of a home in New Zealand. "We don't want to train our people
and then send them away again. We need them here."
Standing chest-high in the turquoise water off one of Funafuti's outer
islets, Cliff O'Brien, 25, looks shocked when I ask if he would leave
Tuvalu for New Zealand. His great-grandfather was an Irish missionary who
landed on Tuvalu and married a local girl. Cliff, too, has travelled the
world, working as a seaman, but, like many young Tuvaluans, remains
ferociously loyal to the islands. "This is my home.
I have no choice. Of course this is where I want to stay, but if the
islands go under we will have to try and preserve Tuvalu sometime else, in
another country. We want to keep our island and maintain our relationship
with the land. Land is very important to us."
But, in increasing numbers, people have been drifting away from the
islands. "Every year you see four or five families going," says Iupasi.
"It is very slow, but they are moving out. Most of our people just go to
New Zealand for a weekend then stay." They are drawn to Auckland, the
largest Polynesian city in the world, and hope their cultural affinity
with Maoris and other Polynesians living there will help preserve some
One person is definitely departing: despite his analogy of the Tuvaluan PM
being the skipper of a sinking ship, Talake wants to retire to New
Zealand, where his two sons are now living. "I am going there to be with
someone who loves you and looks after you well," he says. There are no
pensions in Tuvalu, even for a prime minister.
"Tuvaluans do not like the western style of living," says the Rev Etuati.
"There are no old people's homes where we dump our parents. It is very
hard to leave your father or mother because you are the person to care for
them. If you go to New Zealand, you can send money back, but people also
like to sit beside their parents. It's the Pacific way." He has advised
his congregation not to go to New Zealand.
"I've been there and I don't like to live in these places," he says. "Time
is money there. I like to live my life here and I want to be buried with
my ancestors." Other Tuvaluans, too, insist that they are not yet ready to
give up a lifestyle where they can still survive on the sea and, if they
own land, can evade the slavery of the wage economy.
"I was thinking of migrating because of the rising seas," says Iupasi, who
recently visited his brother and sister in New Zealand. "I think everybody
is thinking of migrating. But every year I prefer to stay here. The rent
is too much in New Zealand. You have to work there. It's palangi [white
'European'] life there: you have to pay your rent, then you sleep. You
have to be wise about using your money. It's not like here. Most of the
time here, you have plenty of friends. Over there, if you don't have a
car, you just stay in the house. You are isolated."
One Tuvaluan who has moved abroad, Puasina Bott, returns regularly, partly
to visit her thriving shop, TV Varieties Store. She loves her home, but
finds the communal life on the island difficult. "If I am here any longer
than two weeks I feel obliged to give A$2,000 here, A$200 there, to the
first cousin of my sister, who is considered a very close relation. People
come and ask for money, and it is expected of you to give it if you can.
It is the Pacific way."
She brought up three daughters in Melbourne with her Australian husband,
but took them back to Tuvalu every 18 months when they were young. "As a
Tuvaluan woman, I did relate Tuvaluan culture to them, so it is not too
hard for them to adjust when they come back here," she explains. "They are
used to their grandparents kissing them all over, not just a 'mwwwup' on
the cheek, and they know how they should behave in front of other
Tuvaluans. I brought the girls up in two cultures."
Iupasi is confident that most of the 1,000 Tuvaluans in New Zealand "are
still maintaining the culture over there". But the next generation? "I
know that after three, four, five years there, most of the young ones
don't think about the Tuvaluan culture any more. They prefer going out; it
is better than going to the fateles [traditional island celebrations of
dancing and drumming]. They take on the palangi ways. They go there
because they want the easy life, then they find it is not so easy. You're
not happy with your life there. It is not your life."
Some doubt that Tuvaluan life could survive, anyway. "Our identity as
Tuvaluans will not just disappear when we go to other countries because of
global warming," says the Rev Etuati. "It has already started to disappear
because of the influence of modernisation. Most of our people are exposed
overseas in education. Change is coming now."