Come Hell or High Water: Rising Sea Levels and Extreme Flooding Threaten to Make the South Pacific's Tuvalu the First Victim of Global Warming

By Ede, Piers Moore | Alternatives Journal, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Come Hell or High Water: Rising Sea Levels and Extreme Flooding Threaten to Make the South Pacific's Tuvalu the First Victim of Global Warming


Ede, Piers Moore, Alternatives Journal


"For the people of low-lying island states of the world ... and certainly of my small island country of Tuvalu in the Pacific, this is no longer a debatable argument. The impacts of global warming on our islands are real, and are already threatening our very survival and existence."

Prime Minister Koloa Talake at the 1997 Kyoto conference in Japan

TUVALU is one of the smallest and most remote countries on earth. About half the way between Hawaii and Australia, it is one of the nine tiny atolls in the South Pacific that represent the Oceania island group. Studded with coconut palms and chalk white beaches, it's the kind of place most people imagine when thinking of paradise.

Yet tragedy is on the horizon. With predicted sea level increases of up to 88 cm in the next century, the islanders are facing the imminent possibility that Tuvalu may follow Atlantis to a watery grave. Already facing major floods, a resettlement program has 75 of Tuvalu's 11,000 inhabitants being annually relocated to New Zealand.

In 1997, Tuvalu Prime Minister Koloa Talake delivered an impassioned speech to the world leaders attending the Kyoto conference in Japan, imploring them to act immediately in response to climate change. But Talake's plea seemed to fall on deaf ears. Six years after the Kyoto Protocol was signed, it still lacks sufficient support to become legally binding. Japan, Canada and much of Western Europe have now ratified the treaty, but the US and Australia have withdrawn.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Talake has hired law firms in both the US and Australia to help Tuvalu formulate a court case against these leading greenhouse gas polluters. He plans to take the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Australian legal experts have warned their government to take the suit very seriously, especially since, unlike the US, they accept the judgement of the new court without reservation. The Tuvalu government has not yet decided whether to extend its legal action to the leading corporations responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, such as oil producers and car manufacturers.

To date, life remains relatively peaceful on Tuvalu's coral islands. Subsistence agriculture and fishing still form the basis of the country's economy, though in recent years the sale of territorial shipping rights to the international fisheries has pumped much needed money into the country. But looming climate change has begun to cast a gloomy shadow over Tuvalan life. Those who are not already planning migration cannot help but consider it as, one by one, their friends desert the sinking ship.

Yet despite New Zealand's resettlement offer, some islanders hold serious reservations about the quality of life in an industrialized country, recognizing that to embrace a new culture would mean embracing the "time is money" mindset and the slavery of a wage economy.

"This is my home," says Cliff O'Brien, a young Tuvalan fisher. "Of course this is where I want to stay, but if the islands go under we will have to try and preserve Tuvalu somewhere else, in another country"

Fishers have been among the first to notice the everyday effects of floods and rising sea levels as the big islands that surround Tuvalu shrink. Many are now less than half their original size.

Hula Vavae, who runs Tuvain's meteorological centre, is perhaps better equipped than anyone to marry scientific research with local knowledge. …

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