Tuvalu is sinking
2003 10 03

by Mark Lynas

I had been in Tuvalu for only two days when the first puddle of water appeared at the side of the small airstrip; more puddles soon joined it. The sea had welled up suddenly through thousands of tiny holes in this atoll's bedrock of coral. People gathered to watch the water flow down paths, around palm trees and into back gardens. Within an hour, it was knee-deep in some places. One of Tuvalu's increasingly regular submergences had begun.

A similar thing occurs most winters in Venice, but Venice has 1.6 billion to spend on a system of protective floodgates. Tuvalu is one of the world's smallest and most obscure nations: 10,000 people, scattered across nine tiny coral atolls. Sea-level rise here is a crisis of national survival: very little of Tuvalu is much more than 20 inches above the Pacific and its coral bedrock is so porous that no amount of coastal protection can save it.

According to Professor Patrick Nunn, an ocean geoscientist at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, atoll nations such as Tuvalu will become uninhabitable within two or three decades, and may disappear altogether by the end of the century. Pleas by a succession of Tuvalu's Prime Ministers (and those of other atoll nations such as Kiribati and the Maldives) for dramatic cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions have been ignored by other, more powerful states. Tuvaluans will have to move.

The first batch of evacuees, 75 of them, is scheduled to migrate this year to New Zealand, 2,000 miles to the south. But many of the older people say they will refuse to leave. Toaripi Lauti, the first Prime Minister of Tuvalu when it became an independent country (it was a British colony until 1978), said: 'I want my children to be safe. I tell them: you leave so that Tuvaluans will still be living somewhere. But I want to stay on this island. I will go down with Tuvalu.'

Government officials are angry at the international community's lack of response, and particularly with the Bush administration in Washington. Paani Laupepa, a senior official in the environment ministry, told me as we sat on a white-sanded beach: 'We are on the front line of climate change through no fault of our own. The industrialised countries caused the problem, but we are suffering the consequences. America's refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol will affect the entire security and freedom of future generations of Tuvaluans.'

Tuvalu has recently embarked on legal action to try to win compensation from the countries emitting most greenhouse gases. 'But how do you put a price on a whole nation being relocated?' Laupepa asked. 'How do you value a culture that is being wiped out?'

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