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PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT

Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai‘i
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GLOBAL WARMING NOT SINKING TUVALU -- BUT MAYBE ITS OWN PEOPLE ARE

By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (March 28, 2002 – Agence France-Presse)---International environmentalists might have it wrong -- global warming is not drowning the Pacific atoll nation of Tuvalu beneath a rising Pacific.

Its fate may be much more prosaic and all local: severe over-population, profound pollution and an unusual World War II legacy.

Experts even believe that if the threatening El Niño event occurs in the next six months, the sea level around Tuvalu will actually fall a by a dramatic 30 centimeters (11 inches). It did during the last big El Niño.

"The historical record shows no visual evidence of any acceleration in sea level trends," Australia’s National Tidal Facility (NTF) said in a statement about Tuvalu this week.

Contrast that hard science with the emotional statement of Tuvalu Prime Minister Koloa Talake at last month’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting where he announced Tuvalu, its neighbor Kiribati and the Maldives are planning legal action against Western nations that they say are creating the global warming that is rising the Pacific’s level.

"Flooding is already coming right into the middle of the islands, destroying food crops and trees, which were there when I was born 60 years ago. These things are gone. Somebody has taken them and global warming is the culprit," Talake said.

NTF, which has a network of tide gauges across the Pacific, says absolutely not so. The Pacific shows no signs, anywhere, of rising.

NTF deputy head Bill Mitchell told AFP that the absolute contrast between politics and science was developing into a crisis. His organization is holding urgent talks with the Tuvalu Government to sort out the problem.

Their tidal gauge has been on the capital atoll of Funafuti since 1993.

As of February 2002, "based on short term sea level rise analyses ... the nearly nine years of data return show a rate plus 0.9 millimeters (0.03 inch) per year," they say.

Mitchell says arguments can be made over the time length and type of scale but he is confident the data show Tuvalu is no more sinking than Australia is.

So why are the politicians so adamant? "We are not quite sure what is going on there," Mitchell said.

For the record, NTF, part of Flinders University of South Australia, is funded to carry out the Pacific study by the Australian Government and Canberra is unpopular with the Pacific for its rejection of the Kyoto Protocols on global warming.

But like Kiribati -- with which Tuvalu was once joined as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands under British rule until 1978 -- evidence is pointing to the locals creating their own nightmares.

Funafuti is an atoll of 30 islets but with a total land area of just 254 hectares (627 acres). That’s about two-thirds the size of either New York’s Central Park or London’s Hyde Park. Much of Funafuti’s land is taken up with a runway. On the atoll live 4,000 people in one of the world’s densest concentrations.

Mitchell said seawater encroachments into vegetable growing pits is occurring but is not due to sea level rise.

"It could be something as simple as chopping down coconut trees. It could affect the hydrology of the atoll," he said.

The population density, and its associated pollution, might be destroying the atoll.

Mitchell points to Funafuti’s infamous "borrow pits," large holes filled with trash.

During the war the Japanese reached Tarawa in the then Gilberts. To turn them back the Americans secretly used Funafuti as a forward base and constructed an airfield by simply digging out a third of the main islet of Fongafale.

It has been known for years that Funafuti’s water table has suffered because of the pits and while Tuvalu used to appeal to the Americans to fix the pits, nothing has been done.

Mitchell believes that may be the real problem with the land degradation Tuvalu’s politicians blame on global warming.

"It’s not sea level rise. It cannot be," he said.

"It must be some other land use change that is going on."

He admits this is likely to be an unpopular view in the Pacific, now more used to blaming Australia than themselves.

Tuvalu’s potential fellow litigant, Kiribati, claims its capital, Tarawa, is sinking.

But when one visiting journalist pointed to the severe pollution, over-population and manmade changes to the islets, Kiribati President Teburoro Tito had the reporter declared an "undesirable immigrant."

NTF is also arguing against the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has warned of sea level rise.

Says NTF: "...over a major part of the world ocean ... the indication is that, over recorded history, sea level rise has occurred, but at a rate which falls significantly short of the IPCC world assessment."

Michael Field
New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent
Agence France-Presse
E-mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz
Phone: (64 21) 688438
Fax: (64 21) 694035
Website: http://www.afp.com/english/
Website: http://www.michaelfield.org

 

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