Tuvalu Special News Feature


Tuvalu Mo Te Atua (Tuvalu for the Almighty) Part 3

The text of this story is (C) Copyright Dr Mark D. Hayes, 2005, All Rights Reserved. Repurposing, re-use, and publication anywhere else, in any form, for any purpose, is expressly forbidden.

Copyright of associated pictures used with this story resides exclusively with the respective owners of each of the pictures - Ms Jocelyn Carlin, Dr Mark D. Hayes, Mrs Silafaga Lalua, and Mr Lomi Paeniu. Repurposing, re-use, and publication anywhere else, in any form, for any purpose, is expressly forbidden.

The Author:

Dr Mark Hayes is a Brisbane-based journalist and journalism academic who teaches part-time in the journalism programmes at the Queensland University of Technology, and the University of Queensland. He has also taught journalism at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji.

Mark specialises in, among other things, computer assisted reporting, journalism ethics, journalism theory, and Anglophone Pacific media and journalism contexts and practices.

He has been to Tuvalu twice, the first time in November, 2002, and most recently, in November, 2004, both three week duration trips largely spent working with journalists employed by the Tuvalu Media Corporation and Radio Tuvalu doing in-house on the job training with them.

His second working trip to Tuvalu late last year was partly funded by a QUT Community Service Scheme grant.

Wednesday, January 5, 2005...

With most of the world still stunned and appalled by the Boxing Day tsunami, and relief efforts rapidly gathering pace, I receive an e-mail from a new friend who works as a journalist for the Tuvalu Media Corporation producing the monthly A4 sized newspaper, Tuvalu Echoes, Silafaga Lalua:

"There is a strong wind warning over the whole group and we're getting more rain and winds now.

I think I like it better when there's rain on this island. It's just too hot without it, but then again there's the threat of being washed out," she wrote.

As a mother of four, Silafaga, who everybody on Funafuti calls Fong, has her own personal reasons for fearing for her family's future.

Silafaga Lalua with her youngest daughter outside
the Funafuti International Airport, November, 2004.

"Just imagine if the tsunami happened around our part of the Pacific, there will be no more us.

This tragedy made me scared for my family so much, and still now I can just imagine the heartache I (and surely everbody else) will experience once this happens to Tuvalu.

I wish the gods will be in favour of us and not send us earthquakes and winds stronger than our little islands can bear, as long as they are inhabited."

With a typical high tide, the Te Namo Lagoon rises steadily, but rarely threatens the buildings and houses which line almost the entire western edge of Funafuti Atoll, except for the port complex on North Funafuti, and some particularly narrow parts of the atoll towards its southern and northern extremities.

The Government Building on Funafuti Atoll viewed
from the Te Namo Lagoon with a normal high tide.

 Left: Tuvalu's only hotel, the Vaikau Lagi, backs on to the Te Namo Lagoon too, with a normal high tide.

 Right: A home satellite dish points to the North West to receive the only television the country called .TV on the InterNet can receive. Houses along the Lagoon are usually not threatened by a normal high tide like this.



And the Vaikau Wharf, with the 'thin Dalek' tide monitor station bolted to it, makes for a good fishing and swimming spot, as well as one of the pick up spots for Semese Alefaio's Lagoon and islet trips.

 Vaikau Wharf, central western Funafuti,
on a typical afternoon, November, 2004


Funafuti Atoll is also extremely well prepared for the worst the elements can throw at it.

Two young school girls from Funafuti, Tuvalu, stand on the edge of the lagoon outside their home. They stand on interlocked concrete blocks placed there to protect the land from erosion and to stem the force of high tides and storm surge.

But the ocean still can rise up and viciously assault the atoll, as locals discovered one August morning in 2002.

A storm surge came out of nowhere on the Pacific Ocean side of the Atoll and scoured a swathe of land about 500 meters wide and 300 meters deep just south of the end of the air strip and a protective berm on South Funafuti, as the BBC reported at the time.

I first saw the damage in November, 2002, and it scared me deeply.


Dr Mark Hayes at the site of the August 2002,
storm surge, in November, 2002 (Below)

Locals who experienced this surge were terrified, and some still speak of the experience with dread. An electricity sub-station just across the road was flooded, and threw sparks of artificial lightening around the area, as well as deadly electricity through the water until a technician cut the power way back up the road.

Luckily, or only by the Grace of God, nobody was killed or injured, and no homes or Fales were seriously damaged.

I went back there two years later, and the site was largely overgrown with scrabby weeds, but you could still see the tumbled mass of white coral rocks and debris.

Left: Storm surge damage partially covered by weeds and old debris, November, 2004.
Right: The hot, barren, rocky, and very spooky eastern, Pacific Ocean side of Funafuti Atoll, November, 2004.


I walked past the nearest house and its Fale to the Pacific side of the atoll, and got the same scary feeling I get every time I go out there - it's ferociously hot during the day, barren, rocky, and spooky 'cos you sort-of know the brooding ocean's out to get the atoll, lapping it, nibbling at it, sneaking into it from below if the conditions are right, and, as happened at this spot, viciously assaulting the atoll. Locals don't go there much either 'cos it's really weird.

Wednesday, February 9, 2005... late morning, Tuvalu time...

The weather is bad, with strongly gusting north westerly winds blasting across the Lagoon, and there's been heavy rain storms during the past few days.

The tide predictions are dire, as Hilia Vavae showed me two months earlier.

Looking at the tide graphs back in Brisbane, I decide to ring Fong and ask her to take some pictures and even write a story about what's happening.

She's already taken some pictures the previous day, which she promises to also send.

Fong agrees to go out into the dreadful weather again later, when the tide is likely to peak at 3.22 meters around 3.30pm Brisbane time, 5.30pm Funafuti time.

I also e-mail her, and some friends working for the Tuvalu Government's InterNet Service Provider and IT Office, to position everybody for some very fast work later in the day.

In Vancouver, B.C., Canada, Brian Cannon, the maintainer of the TuvaluIslands.com web site, is also waiting for news and pictures from Funafuti too.

Anxiously waiting in Brisbane, I 'chat' via a Real Time InterNet Relay Chat channel with my IT friends around the Region and on Funafuti.

One of them, Lomi Paeniu, also agrees to get a camera, take some pictures, and e-mail them back to me.

At 4.14pm Brisbane time, 6.14pm in Tuvalu, Fong's pictures and her story arrive via e-mail:

Funafuti Hit With Extreme High Tides and Storms
by Silafaga Lalua

"It's that time of the year again when my tiny island nation gets hit once again by strong winds and high tides.

High tide waves crash ashore

5.00pm, Tuesday, Feb 8, 2005, found a lot of Tuvaluans on the capital island of Funafuti watching the tides and wondering if this is truly the beginning of the end of our tiny nation.

Waves crashed one metre away from the main road bringing rocks, debris of all sorts right to the middle of the main road, slowing traffic and endangering the lives of local people.


More Waves crash ashore                             Waves wash over Funafuti Road near the
                                                                    old Van Camp shipwreck, central
                                                                western Funafuti Atoll

The seawalls that were constructed to be barriers from the wrath of the waves and the sea stood no chance against the damages of the sea over the years, and now they are only tatters of wire among debris along the shores.

Top: Destruction caused by waves.  Bottom: Flooded house at the 'borrow pits'

Homes located on the narrower parts of the island experience flooding every time the tides are high. Sea water come flowing from the sea right into these people's properties, and filling the borrow pits to the rims, others even overflowed."

The 'borrow pits' are several large, water filled holes on Funafuti left over from US army excavations during World War Two when the air strip was first built. The army told locals that they were only 'borrowing' the rocks and sand. Tuvaluans are still waiting for the loan to be repaid. The borrow pits often flood to overflowing, water streaming into nearby houses, gardens, and pig pens, when the weather and tides are like this.


Flooded borrow pits with pig pens on the eastern, Pacific Ocean,
side of the pits, just north of the end of the Funafuti Air Strip, November, 2004


"On the road it comes up to mid-knee high for adults, a perfect spot for kids to play surf with their makeshift boards, happily trailing after cars and vans that struggle to reach dry land, but oblivious to the fact that these particular tides and floods are creating BIG problems for all of us.


 Various flood scenes on Funafuti

Our island is sinking together with our hearts. Maybe it's its destiny, but then again, maybe it's not."


I quickly edit Fong's story, digitally process the pictures, put a copyright note on each one, and e-mail them off to Brian in Canada, to media and academic contacts around Australia, and on to contacts in Paris, Auckland, and around the Pacific Region.

An hour later, Lomi Paeniu's pictures from that afternoon arrive from Funafuti, so I process, copyright, and e-mail them around too.


Left: Waves crash on to the western side of the atoll from the Lagoon,
looking north from the Vaikau Wharf, 3.50pm, February 9, 2004.

Right: Wave and wind-blown debris scattered across Tuvalu and Te Namo Roads just outside the Government Building, Vaikau, central Funafuti Atoll, while the Lagoon prepares for another assault, 3.50pm, February 9, 2005.

Left: Debris and sea water litters Funafuti Road, Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu, early evening, February 9, 2005

Right: The Vaikau Wharf and the tide gauge is battered by fierce seas and winds, 3.50pm, February 9, 2005.


These pictures, and Fong's accompanying story, are almost certainly the very first time Tuvaluans have reported on an extreme tidal event themselves. (If I have anything to do with it, it certainly won't be the last time either.)

Tuvalu's travails been reported upon many times in the past, sometimes by journalists intent on pushing a particular environmental or political angle, something which disgusts senior Tuvaluan journalists like Silafaga's boss, and former university student of mine, Tuvalu Media Corporation General Manager, Melale Taape, and my oldest Tuvaluan friend, Radio Tuvalu's News Editor, Yvette Isaac, whom I've known since late 2001.

"I feel as a Tuvaluan and local journalist, that my fellow colleagues in overseas countries should consider our feelings as Tuvaluans in their reports," Yvette said to me last November.

 Yvette Isaac, News Editor of Radio Tuvalu, November, 2004.

"We are human beings and also have feelings that every normal human being has.

"We get disappointed, to, when we hear our country being broadcast or talked about in a way that hurts us," Yvette said, with uncharacteristic anger.

As Fong and Lomi were busy, Gary Braasch from the US environmental magazine, Grist, was also busy taking his own pictures, and filed his story, with a powerful picture spread as well, almost a week later.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace has been busy on a southern islet, Betio, south of the main atoll in Kiribati, Tarawa, which had the same extreme high tide event.

On Sunday, February 12, 2005, Reuters' Sydney bureau then compiled a pre-Kyoto Protocol ratification story which drew on both Fong's story, by now posted on Tuvaluislands.com, and the Greenpeace pictures and story from Kiribati.

The early February, 2005, extreme high tide event which battered Tuvalu and Funafuti Atoll, as well as other parts of the Region, such as Tarawa in Kiribati, was entirely predictable, as the Australian National Tidal Centre's charts, freely available from the Web, and which I saw in the Tuvalu Met Office on Funafuti two months earlier with a very worried Hilia Vavae, showed in graphs and numbers.

Added to the pressure on the Lagoon was the moon rising from the east, at its closest to the earth, as Radio Australia's 'Pacific Beat' programme reported.

"When you put those two together, a spring tide put together with the perihelion of the sun, the combination ends up producing rather large tides, in fact in some instances the tides in the last few days have been the largest over the last 18.6 years," Bill Mitchell, Manager of the National Tidal Centre told 'Pacific Beat's' Paul Allen on February 11, 2005.

Throw in awful local weather around Tuvalu, with strong winds and rain storms possibly from the remains of a cyclone far away lashing the Lagoon into a frenzy, and what happened on February 8 and 9, as documented by locals Silafaga Lalua and Lomi Paeniu, and Palagi like 'Grist' magazine's Gary Braasch, was all but inevitable.

The very open question is whether or not global warming causing sea level rise and other global, regional, and even local effects, is amplifying, or is amplified by, extreme, but mostly predictable, tide events as occurred in February, 2005.

The National Tidal Centre's Bill Mitchell is somewhat equivocal.

Greenpeace's climate campaigner, Katherine Fitzpatrick, and locals like Prime Minister, Hon. Maatia Toafa and his family, the rest of the Tuvaluan Government and their families, journalist Silafaga Lalua, information technology worker Lomi Paeniu, conservationist Semese Alefaio, meteorologist Hilia Vavae, and their respective families, and almost every other Tuvaluan who experiences such extreme tidal events, and has to pick up the pieces afterwards, with increasing regularity, have no doubt at all.

The science of global warming is highly controversial, hugely complex, politically volatile and vicious, and every acknowledged uncertainty picked over and exploited, as even the Discussion following the original publication of this story, minus the pictures, on the Sydney Morning Herald's Web Diary demonstrated.

Even when focused down to a comparatively tiny part of the Pacific, and one of the world's smallest, most remote, and poorest countries, there are precious few certainties.

All the kind and gentle people of Tuvalu can do is plead their case and cause in every forum they possibly can, calling on anybody with ears to hear and eyes to see, to Really Listen and Really See.

And they work extremely hard, and ingeniously, with sensitive and sympathetic, and not so sensitive and tied, overseas aid and assistance, on a comprehensive National Adapation Plan of Action (NAPA) to adapt almost every aspect of their lives to a steadily more hostile environment where even their traditional root crop, pulaka, has to be grown above ground because the seeping sea has poisoned the shallow soils and pits where it used to be grown.

Even the rain which pours down on Funafuti in extremely goodly measure come the storms is a very mixed blessing, as I reported Tuvaluislands.com  on InterWorld Radio in January, 2005.

The powerful Te Vaka song, 'Ke Ke Kitea' (So You Can See) should be something of an anthem, a rallying call.

I have gone and I have seen, for myself.

I have been very privileged to have travelled to Tuvalu, twice, spend long enough there in the company of very well informed locals to hear their stories and see what's happening on most of the main atoll and out on the Lagoon.

What I've seen, and been told about, may, or may not, be exclusively caused by global warming and sea level rise. Probably not.

What is certain, and I've seen the effects myself, is that global warming and sea level rise are directly, steadily, insidiously, and occasionally dramatically affecting Tuvalu.

A natural, cyclical, predictable extreme high tide such as occurred in early February, and will occur again very soon, is very probably amplified by sea level rise and other climatic effects of global warming.

The damage extreme tidal events like early February's extreme tides causes all around Funafuti Atoll is certainly amplified by global warming's effects - coral bleaching leading to weakened protective reefs, damaged vegetation caps on islets and on atolls, widespread erosion, sea water contamination of vital fresh water lenses beneath the atolls making what little agriculture can be done in the sandy soils all the more difficult, protracted El Nino periods causing longer and more severe droughts...

Sounds familiar to Australian readers?

Tuvalu was drought stricken the first time I went there in late 2002, gripped by the same withering El Nino drought which sucked much of my native Australia bone dry at the same time.

Jocelyn Carlin and I, while driving down Funafuti Road late on Saturday morning, November 27, 2004, came upon a memorial ceremony for a 40 year old woman who'd passed away a year previously.

Memorial service for Elenisi Semi who passed away on November 27, 2003. Her, and relatives' graves, lie hard against the eastern, Pacific Ocean, side of North Funafuti.

She, and other deceased relatives of the extended family, rest in graves only a few meters away from the relentless Pacific Ocean. Respectfully watching the ceremony, we discretely take some pictures when, suddenly, a leading mourner comes over to us and gives us each a couple of embroidered pillow cases with the deceased's name screen printed on them. "Fafetele lasi," we politely say - thank you very much indeed - in Tuvaluan, and the gift giver smiles at us.

Jocelyn Carlin watches the memorial ceremony for Elenisi Semi, with the gifted pillow cases draped over her shoulder, North Funafuti, November 27, 2004.

That gesture, that spontaneous moment, so Tuvaluan, drawing us into their mourning, the knowing that if, or when, Tuvalu finally goes under, so too will the graves of their revered ancestors, and with them the souls (for want of a better term) of the living, was encapsulated in the gift giver's actions, in her sad, bright, hesitant smile to these two Palagi sharing their celebration of their relative's life.

I've sat under the Fale out back of the Prime Minister's residence, talking with Hon. Maatia Toafa, his wife, Pulafagau, who's a former university student of mine, and played hand games with their lively first grandson while the doting grandparents eagerly anticipated the arrival of two more grandkids, now babies (late February, 2005), the respective children's parents, daughter 'Tinaoroi, and son, Pese, also good friends of mine.

I shoot some video of a gaggle of laughing children tumbled in a hammock strung between two coconut trees on the eastern side of a Maneapa on North Funafuti, hard against the barren, rocky, and even spooky Pacific side of the atoll, and laugh with them as they look at my camera screen playing back their last antics.

Children being children in a hammock, with the Pacific
Ocean just behind them. North Funafuti, November 27, 2004.


And I feel so desperately, desolately, almost hopelessly sad, wondering what future lies ahead for these delightful wrigglers.

These strong emotions hit me hard many times during those quiet moments of reflection as I looked out across the placid Lagoon watching the sun slide into the sea, often with brilliant searchlight yellow flares between the clouds, breathing the delicious, crisp, pristine air,


or gasping with deep awe while seeing the rare, more than precious, breathtaking sights of glorious rainbows arcing right across the entire sky from horizon to horizon after storms like I've described in this article.

The Rainbow.

Symbol of God's covenant to Noah and through Noah to all peoples and creatures of this good earth never to ever again flood the earth we hold in stewardship under God (Genesis 9: 1 - 17).

Many, often more venerable, Tuvaluans literally believe that covenant, and firmly believe and trust God will not allow their island homes to be irrevocably flooded, whatever the seas and the climate does.

As the National Adaptation Plan of Action is steadily implemented across the nine inhabited atolls of Tuvalu, Pastors work alongside secular experts to explain that God's promise still holds true, but it's our bad stewardship of God's good earth and sea and air that's causing the damage the Plan seeks to ameliorate.

The technical theological term for our bad stewardship of God's good earth and sea and air is sin.

What is certain is something is very seriously awry with the climate and the seas, which then affects the sea and land environment, and then the people who live there and call Tuvalu so much more than home.

The Kyoto Protocol, with all its faults and holes, is the best mechanism we, as planetary citizens, have come up with so far to at least try to mitigate the worst effects of what our pollution is adding to the earth's climate.

My friend, Semese, put it as well as anybody when I asked him what message he'd send to Kyoto-holdout governments in Australia and the United States:

"Hey! Wake Up!" he snorted, in his quiet Tuvaluan way, his disgust at global warming skeptics obvious. "This is real. Why not sign it? Think about other people, and let's make a change!"

On Wednesday, February 16, 2005, when it finally became part of international law, we should all have paused and thought of the directly threatened peoples of countries like Tuvalu, and remain ashamed of what we in the industrial world have done, and are doing, to them, and commit to do what we each, and collectively, must do to reduce global warming and the effects of sea level rise, because -

Tuvalu Mo Te Atua!

We Are All Tuvalu!


An elderly man looks out across the lagoon at his boat as the
weather portends a storm, which, with extreme high tides, makes
his home on the low lying atoll more vulnerable.

The Discussion which followed the original publication of this story, without the pictures, can be found at the Sydney Morning Herald's Web Diary Site.

<...Part 2


News Headlines

Tuvalu Online Home