Sinking Tuvalu

Print edition : December 08, 2001

SOON Tuvalu will be lost forever. Barely 23 years since it gained independence, Tuvalu, a tiny island country in the Pacific Ocean midway between Hawaii and Australia, faces the threat of being lost to the sea. Global warming and the consequent rise of the sea level no longer seem to be just theories.

The Tuvaluan government fears that the nine atolls spread over some 26 square kilometres that constitute the country will ultimately go under the sea. But it has denied reports of a plan for the imminent evacuation of the 11,000 citizens.

Fearing a rise in the sea level the Tuvaluan government appealed last year to Australia and New Zealand to provide permanent homes for the people. While Australia refused to take in Tuvaluans, New Zealand is considering the matter.

A SELF-GOVERNING member of the British Commonwealth, Tuvalu was admitted to the United Nations as its 189th member last year. Located 1,000 km north of Fiji, it is the fourth smallest country in terms of area (after Vatican City, Monaco and Nauru) and the second smallest in terms of population (after Vatican City). The highest point in Tuvalu is 4.6 metres above sea level.

The history of human settlement in Tuvalu dates back to 2,000 years, though genealogy reports go back only 300 years. However, an underwater cave with evidence of human occupation some 8,000 years ago was discovered some years ago. According to scientists, a rise in the sea level that began 18,000 years ago and stopped 4,000 years ago may have drowned much of the evidence of human habitation on the atolls.

Formerly called the Ellice Islands, Tuvalu came under British rule in 1877 and was made part of the British Protectorate of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in 1892. In 1915, it became the Gilbert and Ellice Islands' Colony. Following a referendum in 1974, a Constitution was written for Tuvalu, and in 1978 it became an independent constitutional monarchy within the Commonwealth with Funafuti as capital.

Polynesians constitute 96 per cent of the population of Tuvalu, which is headed by a Governor-General who represents the Queen of England.

The densely populated Tuvalu is composed of nine coral atolls with poor soil and no known mineral resources. Farming and fishing are the primary economic activities. Government revenue comes mainly from the sale of stamps and coins and from remittances by its citizens from abroad. Tuvalu receives a substantial sum every year from an international trust fund established in 1987 by Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, and supported by Japan and South Korea. In 1998, the country signed over to a Canadian company the rights for its name to be used as an Internet domain name. Royalties from this are estimated to raise the country's gross domestic product ($ 7 million) over three times in the next decade. In an effort to reduce its dependence on foreign aid, the government is pursuing public sector reforms, including privatisation of some government functions and personnel cuts of up to 7 per cent.

The divide among scientists over whether or not the sea level is rising appears to be narrowing. Recent studies show that in the 20th century, the sea level rose the world over by 20-30 cm. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects a rise of up to 1 metre this century. A U.N. panel comprising 2,000 scientists predicts temperature increases of 10.8 Fahrenheit this century, which might raise the sea level by up to 78.7 cm.

With the rise in the sea level, Tuvalu has experienced lowland flooding. Saltwater intrusion is affecting its aquifers and food production. The nine islands have faced extensive coastal erosion. The higher temperatures that cause the rise in sea level is also leading to destructive storms. Higher surface water temperatures in the tropics and subtropics lead to the radiation of more energy into the atmosphere, which drives the storm systems. Tuvalu has witnessed an unusually high level of tropical cyclones in the past decade.

For island countries, this is not a new problem. In October 1987, Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, in an address to the U.N. General Assembly, said that his country was threatened by rising sea level. The Maldives, with 311,000 people, he said, was "an endangered nation". With most of its 1,196 tiny islands barely two metres above the sea level, the Maldives' survival can indeed be threatened with even a one-metre rise in the sea level in the event of a storm surge.

Tuvalu is the first country that is contemplating to evacuate its people because of the rising sea level, but it almost certainly will not be the last. Tuvaluans may get a home in New Zealand. Lester Brown of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute asks: "What about the 311,000 who may be forced to leave the Maldives? Who will accept them? Or the millions of others living in low-lying countries who may soon join the flow of climate refugees?"

In 1990, perceiving the threats of climate change over which they have little control, the island countries organised themselves into an Alliance of Small Island States (ASIS). Besides island nations, low-lying coastal countries are also threatened by rising sea level. In 2000, a World Bank-published map showed that a one-metre rise in the sea level would inundate half of Bangladesh's riceland. With sea levels predicted to rise up to one metre this century, Bangladeshis would be forced to migrate in their millions.

Rice-growing river floodplains in Asia, including those in India, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and China, are also predicted to be affected. The most easily measured effect of the rising sea level is the inundation of coastal areas. Donald F. Boesch of the University of Maryland Centre for Environmental Sciences, estimates that for each millimetre rise in the sea level, the shoreline retreats an average of 1.5 metres. Thus, if the sea level rises by one metre, the coastline will retreat by 1,500 metres.

According to Lester Brown, many developing countries, already faced with high population growth and intense competition for living space and cropland, now have to cope with the additional prospect of a rising sea level and substantial land losses. Some of those most directly affected have contributed the least to the build-up in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which causes the problem. While developed countries such as the U.S. face loss of beachfront properties, the people of the low-lying islands are threatened with loss of livelihoods and lives.

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