PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT
Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai‘i
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
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
Mitchell points to Funafuti’s infamous "borrow pits," large holes filled
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
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,
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."
New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent
Phone: (64 21) 688438
Fax: (64 21) 694035