‘Tuvalu is sinking.’ This is the phrase which Tuvaluans use to sum up the massive effects of climate change on this tiny island state in the Pacific Ocean. Of course, this isn’t quite accurate; Tuvalu is not sinking, but sea levels are rising fast. Since 1993, sea levels have risen by 0.5cm a year. This may not sound like a lot, but for a country made up of nine islands with the highest point amongst them at only 4.5m above sea level, it’s a scary reality.
About a decade ago, Tuvalu started to notice a worsening string of climate-related impacts. As global warming kicks in with increasing ferocity, air temperatures have increased and sea levels have risen, causing storm surges, an intensified cyclone season and decreasing rainfall. Such effects are devastating for a country of only 11,000 people, with population continually decreasing as Tuvaluans make the decision to leave their ‘sinking’ home behind.
2,000 Tuvaluans are already resident in New Zealand, and this number doubles every five years. The Tuvaluan government has so far refused offers of land for relocation from Fiji and from Australia, whose suggestion that the Australian government would offer full citizenship to Tuvaluans in exchange for maritime and fisheries right was branded ‘imperial thinking’ by former Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga.
Current PM Kausea Natano has accused the international community of abandoning Tuvalu to the vicious effects of a climate crisis not caused by those at its frontlines; carbon emissions across the whole Pacific Islands make up less than 0.03% of the world’s total. However, it is Tuvalu and other threatened nations which are and will be forced to live with the devastating effects of the climate crisis.
‘The existential threat we face is not of our making. But it will remake us.’ – PM Kausea Natano.
The exact lifetime of Tuvalu is uncertain, but it could become uninhabitable within two to three decades. Rising sea levels will contaminate underground water supplies, eliminating available drinking water. The higher tides and increasing storm intensity will reduce crop yields, as well as washing away infrastructure. Tourism and other industries will be impacted; cost of living will continue to rise, and as people become unable to afford necessities, they will move away.
Some locals, such as Nausaleta Setani, 54, used to be skeptical about the reality of climate change, but now, seeing the impacts right on their doorsteps, they fear the future. Setani sleeps at night beside the lagoon in a wooden shack, and has experienced her everyday life becoming more difficult as the sea becomes more erratic: ‘The weather is changing very quickly, day to day, hour to hour.’
Already, the local hospital has set up a specialist unit to treat climate-related illnesses. These include flu, fungal diseases and heatstroke due to the increasingly extreme weather conditions. Another common illness results from ciguatera poisoning, which affects reef fish who ingest micro-algaes expelled by bleached coral. When these fish are then eaten, it causes immediate and sometimes serious illness. Around 10 people are treated at the hospital for ciguatera poisoning every week.
With the lifetime of their island nation limited, the Tuvaluan government have recently announced that they plan to construct a metaverse version of Tuvalu. The hope is that in building a digital replica of the islands, their history and culture will be preserved even when the land itself is submerged. The government are also making efforts to ensure that the statehood and maritime boundaries of Tuvalu will continue to be recognised even when the last Tuvaluans have relocated. This is unprecedented territory for a country, but Tuvalu could be just the first of several countries which will become uninhabitable in the next few decades.
Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands are together launching the Rising Nations Initiative, with the goal to ‘fill the current gaps in awareness, legal frameworks, and political commitment.’ PM Natano hopes that this initiative will help achieve a global settlement which will guarantee nation states a permanent existence beyond the lifetime of their homes. Such a settlement would include their relocation elsewhere, where they would maintain citizenship and preserve traditions, as well as economic independence through the Exclusive Economic Zone around the islands.
It is too late to save the home of 11,000 Tuvaluans; all that remains to be seen is how the international community will respond as impacts of the climate crisis widen and worsen.
‘If the international community allows an entire country to disappear from climate change, what hope will be left for anyone else?’ – PM Kausea Natano.
(Image: Tomoaki INBA, via Flickr.)