Research Intern at Jindal Centre for the Global South
O.P. Jindal Global University
Among the smallest countries in the world by land mass, Tuvalu is a Polynesian archipelago, comprising of nine main islands. It is situated mid-way between Hawaii and Australia in the south Pacific Ocean. The atoll of Funafuti is Tuvalu’s capital and houses more than half of the population. The 2021 World Bank data recorded the population of Tuvalu at 11,925.
Despite its pristine beauty and picturesque location, the people of Tuvalu are facing a major catastrophe, one that can potentially disappear their entire homeland. Over the past decades, this archipelago has slowly been the victim of climate change. Rising sea levels and sand erosion is swallowing the coastal regions and continues to claim more land with each passing year. It is high time the world takes cognizance of what the local population of Tuvalu and scientists have been saying for long – Tuvalu is sinking.
Effects of Rising Sea Level
Most of Tuvalu’s population is engaged in subsistence fishing and agriculture. The rising sea level and constant overflowing have caused crops to fail. The increase in salinity of the soil is resulting in staple crops such as taro, banana and grapefruit becoming unfit for human consumption. Most of the crops even fail to ripen. Consequently, there has been an increase in import of food crops from neighboring countries. However, the costs of imports have been steadily increasing and are creating a negative impact on the economy.
The flow of sea water onto previously dry land has led to increasing concerns for people who are settled along the coastlines.
The sea water has begun breaching into and contaminating the ground water supply of the island. This has also aided in the failure of crops and the deterioration of drinking water. Lack of rivers on their islands mean that Tuvaluans rely on the collection of rainwater for drinking and other purposes. However, unseasonal droughts are hindering this as well.
Scientific data has proven that the temperature on the islands is increasing steadily. The local population also agree as in recent times the temperature during the day has become almost unbearable compared to the past. This has not only led to people spending more time indoors during the day but also increased the chances of cases of dehydration, heat strokes and other ailments. (Roy, 2019)
The urgency in concerns about Tuvalu is also exacerbated by the fact that the highest point in the country is a mere 4.6 metres above sea level. Being an island nation, this is no relief as people find it difficult to escape to higher grounds during storms. Moreover, almost 40% of the capital, Funafuti gets submerged during high tides. This includes the lone international airport of Tuvalu which is a supply line of resources into the country. Locals fear that increased storm surges and the inflow of sea water can potentially cause a disruption in trade due to the unavailability of landing space for aircrafts. (Almond, 2019)
The islands of Tuvalu are surrounded by coral reefs. An increase in the temperature of sea water is leading to an increase in the rate of coral bleaching. Bleaching of corals releases the algae that had been inhabiting them. One such microalgae named Gamierdiscus toxicus contains a toxin called ciguatoxin. When the fish in these reefs eat these algae, the toxin accumulates in their bodies. However, ciguatoxin does not have any impact on the fishes. The problem arises when people consume these fishes. Fish is an integral component of Tuvaluan the diet as well as exports. Ciguatera poisoning can cause immediate vomiting, nausea and diarrhoea in the consumer (Harmful Algal Blooms, n.d.). The local hospitals of Tuvalu have been recording a steady increase in ciguatera cases over the years and it is largely attributed as an impact of climate change.
What do the People of Tuvalu say?
“No national leader in the history of humanity has ever faced this question: Will we survive or will we disappear under the sea?”
– Former Prime Minister of Tuvalu Enele Sopoaga (2014 UN Conference)
The concern of Tuvalu slowly being submerged has been raised by the people and government of Tuvalu time and again. Yet, the country itself has been unable to do much on its own.
Tuvalu is classified as a ‘least developed nation’ by the United Nations. They depend on foreign aid and funding from the UN and other countries. A lack of funds and dedicated interests has resulted in the delay of proposed projects. Many Tuvaluans, especially the younger population have migrated to neighboring Fiji, Australia and New Zealand which are witnessing a steady increase in the Tuvaluan population. Initially the migration was for educational and career opportunities. However, in recent times Tuvaluans are shifting with their families permanently, having come to believe that their country will likely not exist in the near future. The older generation of Tuvaluans are not keen on building a life in other countries as they believe that this will result in losing touch with their land, culture and identity. The connection to their land prevents them from seeking refuge in safer grounds.
The former Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga was a strict advocate of industrialised nations taking responsibility for climate change. This is the reason he said that evacuation would be a last resort. Sopogoa believed that simply moving the people of climate vulnerable regions into other “safer” parts of the world failed to place the onus of climate change acceleration on nations that were benefitting from industrialization. Despite neighboring countries offering citizenships and welfare schemes for Tuvaluan refugees, the former prime minister believed that these are temporary measures that neglected the root cause of the need to implement these programs in the first place. When Tuvalu had first sounded the alarm of the gradual washing away of land area, there had been sceptics who claimed that this was a publicity stunt to extract foreign funds from other countries in the name of climate change. These sceptics had also said that the request of Tuvalu for citizenship in neighboring countries was an act to freely enter and settle in developed lands with better resources and infrastructure. (Allen, 2004)
The current foreign minister Simon Kofe is of the opinion that the voice of small Pacific nations such as Tuvalu is being stifled in the global power struggle for dominance between China and the USA. The Pacific Ocean is a hot ground for the fisheries industries. The availability of abundant marine organisms is largely due to the sustainable practices of the people of the islands in these regions. The people of the Pacific live with deep reverence for nature, spiritually connected to their land and its resources. They believe that what is taken from the land is a gift from nature and thus, they treat life with respect. When developed and industrializing nations come seeking treaties and proposals on the fishing industry with these islanders, they refuse to acknowledge the time-tested practices and come with the sole intention of acquiring profits. Such unsustainable and ecologically unstable activities turn destructive, hurting local economies and damaging chances of peaceful and mutually beneficial collaborations between the advanced nations and the Pacific islands. (Needham, 2022)
The Tuvaluan government and people believe that their voices are deliberately being ignored and lessened on the global stage. This lackadaisical approach of the international community is concerning to other Pacific Island countries as well as countries that are in ecologically unstable zones as they could soon be facing the same issues that Tuvalu is facing today. According to scientists, Tuvalu could become uninhabitable in the next 50-100 years.
The Speech That Garnered the World’s Attention
The crisis in Tuvalu gained worldwide attention at a public level during the COP26 in 2021. Simon Kofe, the Foreign Minister of Tuvalu, delivered his official address by standing in knee-deep sea water. This was done to draw attention to some facts. One, is that a small Pacific country called Tuvalu existed and was as much a part of the world as others. Two, Tuvalu could be one of the first casualties of climate change and needs help. The minister highlighted the topic of climate mobility and the need to take action to prevent the worsening of global warming. (Packham, 2021)
Measures to Save Tuvalu
Scientific research motivated countries should partner with Tuvalu to help find solutions to their crisis. Japan was one such nation which came forward in 2011 when a research group proposed a project to counteract the erosion of land at the coastal sides of Tuvalu. Being an island nation themself, the Japanese felt connected to Tuvalu’s cause and thus joined hands with the people of Tuvalu. Such initiatives should be taken by other nations as well. (Agency)
Several projects have been proposed either by the government of Tuvalu or by the scientific community. The lack of funds is the reason these projects remain merely plans on paper. The UN should take the lead in ensuring that these projects are begun before it is too late.
As the former Prime Minister of Tuvalu said, evacuation of people to safer grounds does not solve the problem of climate change. At this point of time, climate change and the consequences it can bring are known to most of the population on the planet. The need for taking responsibility lies with nations that have historically profited out of industrialization while the rest of the world dealt with the consequences these unchecked activities had on the planet. However, all nations have a responsibility of committing and working together towards a sustainable planet.
Construction activities on the coastlines can be prohibited. The soil near the coast is relatively loose and unstable to support infrastructure. With the increased surge of sea water, existing buildings and houses are at risk of collapse. The government must take all possible steps to shift the people inland, along with ensuring accommodation and facilities in these new areas.
It is time the world focuses on Tuvalu and the real possibility that this island is on the verge of disappearing from existence. The intensity of global warming is increasing with time and for once, the people of the world have to come together to solve it.
Agency, J. S. (n.d.). Aiming to Rehabilitate the Islands with High Resilience. Retrieved from SATREPS: https://www.jst.go.jp/global/english/case/environment_energy_3.html
Allen, L. (2004, August). Will Tuvalu Disappear Beneath the Sea? Retrieved from Smithsonian magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/will-tuvalu-disappear-beneath-the-sea-180940704/
Almond, K. (2019). Rising sea levels are threatening this Pacific paradise. Retrieved from CNN: https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2019/05/world/tuvalu-climate-change-cnnphotos/
Harmful Algal Blooms. (n.d.). Retrieved from Centres for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ciguatera/#:~:text=More%20information-,About%20Ciguatera,as%20tingling%20fingers%20or%20toes.
Needham, K. (2022, May 13). Tuvalu, sinking in the Pacific, fears becoming a superpower ‘pawn’. Retrieved from Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/tuvalu-sinking-pacific-fears-becoming-superpower-pawn-2022-05-13/
Packham, C. (2021, November 11). COP26: Tuvalu minister delivers speech in the ocean to raise awareness about rising sea levels. Retrieved from World Economic Forum: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/11/tuvalu-minister-stands-in-sea-to-film-cop26-speech-to-show-climate-change
Roy, E. A. (2019, May 16). ‘One day we’ll disappear’: Tuvalu’s sinking islands. Retrieved from Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/may/16/one-day-disappear-tuvalu-sinking-islands-rising-seas-climate-change
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.