Tuvalu Little, Tuvalu Late: A Country Goes under. (Global Notebook)

Article excerpt

Most people are unaware of the existence of the small nation of Tuvalu, a nine-island archipelago in the South Pacific 1000 km north of Fiji and 4000 km east of Australia. Given its minuscule size and remote location, this is hardly surprising.

Yet the 11,000 inhabitants of Tuvalu face a huge dilemma: how to ensure the survival of their nation. The threat to Tuvalu comes not from bellicose neighbors but from natural surroundings: it is estimated that within 50 years, Tuvalu will be swallowed by the sea.

At its highest point, Tuvalu rises only 4.5 meters above sea level, and its average elevation is a scant one meter. When taken together with estimates of rising ocean levels, these figures do not bode well for the future of the islands. Enele Sopoaga, Tuvalu's ambassador to Fiji, stated in 1999 that sea levels will rise more than one foot, and possibly more than three feet, within the next century. He linked these rising levels to melting polar ice caps as the global climate shifts towards warmer temperatures. This threat became clear in 1992 when Tuvalu's Prime Minister Bikenibeu Paeniu announced that his island nation would be "the world's first victim of climate change." Since then, Tuvalu has already begun to see the effects of rising sea levels. Paani Laupepa, acting assistant secretary at the Ministry for Natural Resources and the Environment, lamented that, "The islands are full of holes and sea water is coming through these, flooding areas that weren't flooded 10 or 15 years ago." The Tuvaluans' pligh t, it seems, is set only to worsen.

Nor does the international community disagree with the worries of Tuvaluans. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects ocean levels to rise between 20 cm and 90 cm this century. Despite this generally-held scientific consensus, there are those who argue against such estimates; one study in particular claims to find no evidence of rising ocean levels. Wolfgang Scherer, director of Australia's National Tidal Facility (NTF) at Flinders University, contends that "the data does not support any sea-level rise at all." He bases this on data collected from tide gauges installed across the Pacific in the past 10 years, including a gauge at Funafuti, Tuvalu's capital. "The short-term sea-level rise analyses...[show] no change in the average sea level over the period of record." Scherer dismisses the Tuvaluans' fears by observing that "when you live there on a day-today basis, you do have water lapping at your feet, when you have storm surges coming through it is not a very comfortable experience"; nonethele ss, he does not believe that this supports the notion of a sinking island. Defenders of Tuvalu respond that the gauge has not even been in Tuvalu for a decade and thus has not had time to accurately record rising sea levels. Peter Bennetts, an Australian photographer who has taken on Tuvalu's cause, believes that "the NTF reads the gauge and the results are interpreted by or to suit Canberra." Despite those opposing the views of Tuvalu's government, the general opinion is that Tuvalu does face a real problem.

Already, Tuvalu has seen severe lowland flooding, and it is probable that encroachment has claimed I percent of the 62 square km representing the entire land area of the archipelago. …