While islands and coastal communities everywhere are facing the harsh effects of climate change, the South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is experiencing its own acute crisis: Because of climate change, Tuvalu has begun sinking. Based on the available evidence, experts believe these beautiful islands might submerge into the South Pacific Sea within a few years.
Richard Gokrun (Tuvaluan), a former meteorologist and the Executive Director of the Tuvalu Climate Action Network (TuCAN), an NGO that supports Tuvalu’s civil society organizations to enhance their resilience to climate change, shares his concerns about the potential fate of the islands. “Tuvalu communities are experiencing sea level rise, increasing temperatures, droughts, coastal erosion, and intensely strong winds. Sea level rise has badly affected the groundwater to the extent that communities can no longer use groundwater for drinking,” he says.
Tuvalu has always fought with extreme weather like storms and floods. However, the consequences of climate change are making it uninhabitable. For Tuvalu communities, a healthy ecosystem is important because agriculture is the primary source of economic, societal, and dietary welfare. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about 80 percent of Tuvalu participates in agriculture and fishing. The entire population relies on ocean resources, as well as pulaka, a “swamp crop” that is likened to taro. But natural resources are disappearing due to saltwater mixing with groundwater, which has caused soil infertility for local farmers. Most crops, including pulaka, cannot absorb salt.
Gokrun explains that as the population increases, so does demand for imported goods due to the limitation of land for subsistence farming. “Local Tuvalu communities are having to shift from their traditional food diet to a diet mostly consisting of imported food, some of which have caused various lifestyle diseases,” he says. Scientists have also observed that higher temperatures negatively affect crop productivity, biodiversity, and local Tuvaluans; many Tuvaluans now avoid working during the day because of the intensity of the sun. “Direct heat from the sun is too hot to do many outdoor activities and nights are also hot. That causes some families to move out of their homes to open spaces to get fresh winds and a good night’s sleep,” says Gokrun.
Richard Gokrun calling attention to the need to address climate change.
Higher temperatures have also disturbed the marine ecosystem. Some species have migrated due to coral bleaching, which puts many communities in despair since marine resources are the primary source of food and income. Many fishers have to travel farther away to catch fish for their daily supply of income. Gokrun also notes that there are nearby fishing spots that are no longer used due to climate impacts that cause those rich marine lives to migrate elsewhere or are even extinct. The sudden change in the weather and the environment, combined with a lack of resources and technology, make it difficult for Tuvalu communities. This results in significant migration.
Gokrun says that Tuvalu communities have introduced mitigation measures to these impacts in such ways as rebuilding infrastructures and innovative farming practices. For example, to mitigate saltwater intrusion, farmers have raised artificial soil beds to a height that is beyond the reach of saltwater. Likewise, communities in Tuvalu have come together to move their food resources to higher locations for better growth and less saltwater penetration. Because pulaka is the primary food source for Tuvalu’s people, the community’s priority is to build a wall to protect the plants. “Communities have planted mangroves along the beach to lessen the impacts of strong currents and waves. Further inland along the coast, more trees are being planted to secure the soil, and youths, together with other organizations, have planted mangroves to prevent coastal erosion further inland,” says Gokrun.
Tuvalu’s communities have also taken steps to preserve clean water, building a community reservoir to prepare for droughts. The government is also assisting with water projects and, according to Gokrun, has its “water storage on standby when the need is great, and has its desalination plants ongoing when long periods of no fresh water occur.”
Despite such efforts to save the islands’ ecosystem, some Tuvaluans have opted to relocate, leaving Tuvalu because of climate change. Reports indicate that about 75 percent of Tuvaluans over 30 have relocated to New Zealand and Australia since 2004 under the Pacific Access Category program. The relocation of Tuvaluans has had both positive and negative impacts on the community. As some Tuvaluans leave, families who had previously been cramped in a single small house have the opportunity to expand their space. Additionally, Tuvaluans who have moved abroad continue to support their families and communities by sending money back home.
The unfortunate consequence of relocation is that those who have moved to another country face the challenge of adapting to another culture. Gokrun points out that when these families return to visit Tuvalu, “the cultures and lifestyle of the particular country they reside in will be coming along with them and cause other members in the community to adopt those lifestyles.” Adults who leave Tuvalu and remain true to Tuvaluan culture are able to remember and practice their cultural traditions. However, younger generations who leave often find it challenging to marry their native heritage with the new lifestyles of the countries to which they migrate.
It is well known that larger nations like France, Germany, the United States, and China are significant contributors to climate change. The Paris Agreement, an international agreement among nearly 200 parties that seeks to limit global warming through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, has yet to curb increasing temperatures. Commenting on the most recent Conference of the Parties held in Glasgow in January, Gokrun says, “The decisions at COP26 are a disappointment and unjust for small island developing states like Tuvalu. It did not address our demands for climate justice, climate finance, and climate-induced loss and damage.”
Larger countries need to consider smaller island nations as important as other large countries. “Countries like the United States, France, Canada, and Germany must put more funds into climate finance to support our small island nation to mitigate the impacts that we face daily,” says Gokrun. “The larger countries need to start keeping the Paris Agreement alive and consider reducing harmful impacts to the environment because small islands are not the only nations in danger. Climate change impacts every one of us.”
In addition to dealing with the impacts of climate change on a daily basis, the Tuvaluan community also faces the challenges of the pandemic. “The impacts of COVID-19 have kept ill people in the communities from accessing proper treatment in our main hospitals and also those who need urgent medical treatment overseas due to border restrictions,” says Gokrun. During the global lockdown, unemployment increased as day laborers were laid off from their jobs. Most families rely heavily on the income of day laborers because that is the only access they have to imported foods. Many families also decided to move from the capital to their islands of origin, which has added to the issue of less water and space for families who reside together.
Fortunately, the situation in Tuvalu is slowly improving, and those who were laid off are getting their jobs back. Gokrun notes that while “the stress created in this situation is unbearable, for the benefit of Tuvalu communities, we must accept these facts and ensure strong prevention measures are strictly followed.”
It remains to be seen whether or not the islands of Tuvalu can be saved from the rising sea. But Gokrun and the Tuvalu Climate Action Network continue to fight for the urgently needed global commitment to reduce Earth’s warming, and the equally urgent need to assist Tuvaluans in implementing clean energy and adapting to climate change.
--Suhra Nahib is an associate for Communications and Research at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.
All photos courtesy of Tuvalu Climate Action Network’s Facebook page.