At the back of his house in Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu, Manoa Tehulu is husking coconuts. One after the other, he methodically splits their tough coats on a metal spike embedded in the ground then strips away the thick chunks of fibrous husk. There's nothing unusual in this: husking coconuts is a standard morning chore on every Pacific island. The meat of the nut is fed to the household pigs or grated and squeezed for coconut cream; the shells and husks fuel the cooking fire.
What is unusual is that Manoa is standing ankle-deep in water. It has been seeping out of the ground for the past couple of hours as high tide approaches, and now Manoa's house and those of his neighbours are surrounded by a shallow lake. Manoa's granddaughter and another child are wading up the driveway, trying to catch the tadpoles darting about in the brackish water.
In a few hours, the pond will drain away, but it will be back tomorrow. For the past few years, the tides have been pushing more and more water up through the island's porous coral foundation, temporarily inundating low-lying areas. In 2001, the entire airfield was flooded. The problem is worst when the tides are highest-the so-called 'king tides' around Easter, the time of my visit. Tuvalu, it would appear, is being slowly swallowed by the sea.
Tuvalu is the fourth-smallest and third-least-populated country in the world, a group of islands located midway between Hawaii and Australia. Like an overnight celebrity in a reality show, it has found itself in the media spotlight lately over claims that it's facing national extinction, the direct result of climate change.
The charge has been led by Tuvalu's leaders, who claim that developed nations are profligately filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, which, in turn, is causing sea levels to rise. For an island nation such as Tuvalu, where the highest land is a mere five metres above mean sea level, those rising oceans are a ticking time bomb. Defuse the bomb, Tuvalu's leaders say, before our people-and millions more in other low-lying lands-face catastrophe. Oh, and while you're at it, you can pay us compensation.
IN THE FIRING LINE
Pacific nations first voiced concerns about being in the environmental firing line during the late 1980s, as the implications of human-induced climate change began to filter from the scientific community through to the general public. In 1988, the president of Kiribati, Tuvalu's neighbour to the north, said that if what scientists were saying was true, then 'in 50 or 60 years, my country will not be there'.
Environmental groups picked up the idea of low-lying islands going the way of Atlantis and began to sound the alarm. Journalists latched on to countries such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Maldives as the environmental hard-luck stories of the new millennium, and in no time, these postcard paradises became poster children for greenhouse annihilation. Headlines such as 'Tuvalu Toodle-oo,' 'Tides of Terror' and 'Tuvalu Sinks Today--The Rest of Us Tomorrow?' began to proliferate. In 2001, US environmental campaigner Lester Brown wrote, 'The leaders of Tuvalu have conceded defeat in their battle with the rising sea, announcing that they will abandon their homeland.'
The Tuvaluan prime minister, Koloa Talake, upped the ante by threatening to sue the USA and Australia for failing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The lawsuit, which was to have been filed in the International Court of Justice in the Hague, was dropped when Talake failed to be re-elected in 2002.
The rhetoric, both from Tuvalu government officials and climate campaigners, has remained strident. In a speech to the UN in September 2003 marking Tuvalu's 25 years of independence, then prime minister Saufatu Sopo'aga told the general assembly that his people lived 'in constant fear of the adverse impacts of climate change', and were 'deeply dismayed that key industrialised nations do not share our concern'. …