19 Jul 2010

Tuvaluans talk about the threat posed by rising sea levels

12:01 pm on 19 July 2010

Tuvalu has made a name for itself on the world stage in recent years as one of the countries most threatened by the impact of climate change.

One of the very smallest of countries in terms of land mass, Tuvalu's eight atolls are all low-lying with the highest point being just four and a half metres above sea level.

Scientists say sea levels are rising and some have warned that Tuvalu will be inundated sooner than expected if global greenhouse emissions are not reduced.

Johnny Blades reports that Tuvaluans themselves don't need scientists to tell them how real the threat of rising seas is.

Tuvalu was bitterly disappointed that December's UN climate change summit in Copenhagen fell far short of the goal of setting binding carbon emission reduction targets for major countries.

Tuvalu's Director of the Environment says they're still optimistic that progress can be made at the next UN climate summit in Mexico at year's end.

Mataio Tekinene says sea level rise is the major concern for his country.

"We are so low... maybe three metres above sea level. And that's why this sea-level rise is a critical concern to us. Currently we are experiencing quite a number of changes: the frequency of changes in hurricanes, storm surges and other risky situations that have resulted from the impact from climate change."

An observer at Tuvalu's Met Service, Niko Iona, says the highest king-tides on record were measured in 2006, with many low-lying areas flooded.

In recent years, the regular season for king-tides has stretched across the calendar, bringing more flooding.

Normally, February and March. But now most of the times we experience it every month, most of the months of the year, flooded low-lying areas.

Niko Iona says the regional tsunami warning issued after an 8.8 earthquake struck Chile in February provided them a chance for Tuvalu to test its emergency response:

Because we don't have any mountains here in Tuvalu and what Disaster officials are doing is they move, evacuate people from the coastal areas to big houses with double storeys, like if you look over at the government building, that's another place where the Disaster (people) did that time move people to the top of the government office, and also to the primary schools. The police and the Red Cross volunteers they went around with transport and picked up everyone and took them to the government building and other places.

Over at the three-storey high government building, leaders have grown tired of repeating the call for the industrialised world to listen to their pleas.

A recently released study of 27 Pacific Islands found that 45 percent have maintained a stable surface area in the last 60 years, while 45 percent have grown.

The report - which also said that rather than sinking as sea levels rise, some islands are growing or moving on their reef platform - may have come as welcome relief to some Tuvaluans fearful of inundation.

But the government knows from basic aerial imagery that there's less of Tuvalu remaining above water than before.

The Home Affairs Minister, Willie Telavi points out a coastline that has eroded significantly and insists bigger countries have an obligation to look after smaller countries whose lives their actions impact on.

The latest attempt was in the Copenhagen meeting. Well, if they don't care about us then we have to care for our own selves and see how we can manage this situation ourselves here in Tuvalu. But as I said, we've already voiced our concern to the industrialised countries to be more cautious on the developments which will have an impact on us.

Grinding sedimentation has had a clear impact on Tuvalu's food crops.

Some former areas of Cocount and fruit plantations are now partly submerged.

And various marine species which used to provide regular food for families, have migrated from the shallow waters of the lagoon due to changes attributed to sea-level rise and acidification.

One woman I met, Seluia, is in no doubt about the changing the shape of the coast

We are depending on your countries... We can't do much, especially as a small country. Even the tsunami warning and all that, it was really new to us. Not like before, we never experienced those kind of climate change things. But nowadays it's really happening and we are really affected. Very frightening.

We ask her if she thinks she'd ever have to move out of Tuvalu.

Yeah... that's what we must do.

However many older Tuvaluans don't believe their people will have to move as a result of climate patterns.

They don't accept the concept of climate change put forth by scientists, and often tell you that Tuvalu's fate is in God's hands.

A reporter with Radio Tuvalu, Semi Malaki, says most locals know the Tuvaluan way of life is under threat, but that it's not necessarily driving any changes.

Because I had an experience with some reporters coming from overseas and asking about people migrating to New Zealand under the Pacific Access scheme. They ask the people if they're moving because of climate change and sea-level rise. They say no they're not moving because of climate change. They just go for greener grass.

Local seafarer Jack Taleka says sea-level rise is something previous generations on Tuvalu spoke about...

More than fifty years ago, like decades, they've been coming up with the same news. But I think there are some changes. Because I still remember when I was a kid around here, the land was pretty far out to the sea but every year now it's getting closer and closer. Every year it's changing. It's quite a threat though. But most of the people don't want to leave here and leave the Tuvalu way of life.

He says for his family, it'd be a hard choice to leave Tuvalu and their heritage behind.

I'll wait and see... but I think only New Zealand is accepting us to migrate. I don't know about other bigger countries like Australia and the US, if they ever think about us, for us to migrate there and provide us lands to live there - that'd be cool. But we can't just go there and take other people's land and settle there for free. Not like here where we're free. Back in those countries, you have to pay. No job, no life...

The government says it doesn't have an official resettlement plan on the table.

There are plans about a new approach to lobbying at the UN, adaptation systems and even coastal fortification projects.

But for all this, resettlement is the long-term option that seems to loom at the back of everyone's mind on Tuvalu.