We Are All Tuvaluans
A special feature to TuvaluIslands.com, January 5, 2007
In December, 2005, the leading Australian quarterly journal, Griffith Review, commissioned Dr Mark Hayes to return to Tuvalu to report on the predicted extreme high tides in late February, 2006, for its May, 2006, themed edition on global warming, 'Hot Air - How nigh's the end?'
Soon after, Dr Hayes put Griffith Review in touch with leading New Zealand photographer, Ms Jocelyn Carlin, and it wasagreed that Ms Carlin would join Dr Hayes on Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu, from February 20 to March 3, 2006, to compile a photographic essay for the May, 2006, Griffith Review.
On Funafuti Atoll, Ms Carlin and Dr Hayes stayed at the Filamona Lodge, together with visiting Australian PhD candidate in cultural geography, Carol Farbotko, who's researching the social and cultural effects of global warming on Tuvalu, and a BBC camera crew who were shooting segments for nature documentaries. Some of these segments were featured in the BBC's Climate Chaos series in May and June, 2006. A BBC reporter, Nick Squires, who wasn't on Funafuti for the late February extreme high tides, later published an item for From Our Own Correspondent on the Tuvaluan sport of kilikiti, as an entry point into discussing the threat global warming poses to the tiny country.
Other articles from Dr Hayes' early 2006 Tuvalu visit were published in the May, 2006, edition of Pacific Magazine, featuring pictures by Ms Carlin, and the May, 2006, edition of the Uniting Church in Australia (Queensland Synod) magazine, Journey.
Ms Carlin's photographic essay was published as a centre piece of Griffith Review's May, 2006, edition, entitled, 'Legacy - Tuvalu', which also featured in an exhibition in Brisbane and Ipswich, in Queensland, Australia, in late May, 2006.
Tuvaluislands.com re-publishes Dr Hayes' feature article from Griffith Review, May, 2006, with kind permission from the editor, Dr Julianne Schultz, and includes his pictures taken as he was researching the article, and also includes additional pictures by Ms Carlin.
© Griffith Review, 2006, Dr Mark Hayes, 2006, Ms Jocelyn Carlin, 2006. All Rights Reserved.
Tuvaluan high school students ponder their future.
Photograph: Jocelyn Carlin © 2004 Used with Permission.
We Are All Tuvaluans
Tatou ne Tuvalu Katoa - We are all Tuvaluans - is often used in Tuvalu as an expression of national unity, calling on Tuvaluans to pull together in the collective interests of their tiny, isolated, and very vulnerable country.
It is also used by some knowledgeable environmentalists who understand that global warming and sea level rise, though gravely threating the very existence of low lying tropical island countries like Tuvalu, also is threatening us all.
Wednesday February 22, 2006: It's goingto be another hot and steamy day on Funafuti, the main atoll in Tuvalu. Just the hint of a breeze, and the vague promise of a shower from the clouds to the north-east. This won't cool things down, just add to the humidity.
I'm standing in about the middle of the widest part of Funafuti Atoll, just near the airstrip which dominates this part of the island. Directly to the east, about 400 meters away, the coral rock and sand wall thrown up by a cyclone in late 1972 protects the atoll from surges.
If it weren't for the breezy drone of the power station, I could hear the Pacific Ocean against the atoll, waves rolling white coral rocks like bowling balls up and down the rocky, barren shore. I won't go out there unless I have to because it's scary and weird. You sense the brooding ocean's out to get the place.
To the west, up a paved lane, past the blue roofed and white walled three
From the cockpit of the Air Fiji twin engine turbo prop plane which makes the thrice weekly two and a half hour flight north to the tiny airport with the best destination code on the planet, FUN, Funafuti comes into view like a thin green snake laid almost due south to north in the vast open ocean. It's twelve kilometres long, with motu at each end, scattered along the western edge of the wide Te Namo. The atoll is about eight degrees south of the equator.
There are no hills or mountains here, no rivers or permanent streams.
In 1897, the Australian scientist, T.W. Edgeworth David, led an expedition to Funafuti Atoll, then part of the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony - Polynesian Tuvalu was the southern, Ellice Islands, the northern Micronesian Gilberts, now Kiribati. Professor David wanted to test Charles Darwin's hypothesis that tropical atolls were perched and growing on tops of ancient volcanoes or mountains, so his team drilled holes deep into the centre of the atoll to partially confirm Darwin's idea. The nondescript spot - a small concrete circle with a hole in the middle tucked away near the hospital on a side road - is still called David's Drill or David's Hole, but I call it Mt Funafuti, much to the amusement of my Tuvaluan friends.
Tuvalu consists of nine low lying islands with a total land area of twenty-six square kilometres. The name, taken at separation from the Gilbert Islands in 1975, means "eight standing together". The southernmost atoll in the group, Niulakita, has been re-inhabited more recently.
The national slogan, Tuvalu mo te Atua means 'Tuvalu for God', reflecting its strong Christian beliefs, with virtually all the population members of the Ekalesia Kelisiano Tuvalu (EKT), a protestant denomination based on the work of London Missionary Society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The country has an estimated population of 11,500, with just under half of whom living on densely inhabited Funafuti, with a land area of less than three square kilometres. The problem of 'urban drift' from the outer islands to the capital, increasing its population by a tenth in a decade, is significantly contributing to the country's challenges. Home island and extended family ties are central to Tuvaluan identity, and so many people from the outer islands crowding Funafuti adds still more pressures on this atoll's environment and social fabric.
In every respect, Tuvaluan life is lived pretty close to the edge, either subsistance fishing, gathering natural or small plantation coconut, pandanus, or breadfruit farming, or, more usually, a mixture of developing island Western-style living and traditional practices. The biggest employer is the Tuvaluan Government, with the next biggest being the seafarer hire company which contracts as many as 400 to 600 Tuvaluan men to crew cargo boats world wide, their remittences home helping their families live comfortable lives, but at the cost of long separations from wives and growing children. The average Tuvaluan family lives on about $ AU 1,200 a year, though many live on more, and some on less. The thin connections to the outside world start getting personal when the Air Fiji flight is cancelled for some reason, and you're supposed to be on it, or a family expecting a returning seafarer husband, father, or uncle has to wait even longer for the sometimes two years' separation to end.
This Wednesday morning, locals are starting to stir. The few who were sleeping on the airstrip have rolled up their taapa (woven coconut or pandanus fibre) mats and pillows and wandered back to their fales (open sided, roofed, raised platforms) outside their houses for a little more sleep. They're not supposed to sleep on the airstrip, but it's one of the few places to catch a breeze on hot, still, tropical nights. There's no risk of a plane landing on them, but they could be hit by a late night errant driver. Not that this happens much here either.
Solo, a young man in his early twenties, walks towards me with a wicked looking knife and a couple of bottles with woven string ties at their necks, smiles, bids me a cheery Talofa (Tuvaluan for 'hello'), and starts climbing a coconut tree, carefully balancing his knife and the bottles as he climbs.
Along the road, locals are walking, or riding bicycles, or small motorbikes, as they attend to the tasks of the morning. Children, some already in their crisp light blue and white school uniforms, have been sent to the fusi (small coop supermarket). Some folks are carrying large white plastic biscuit buckets filled with kitchen scraps and coconut meat and making their way to their pig pens along the sea wall to the east.
From a nearby house, I can hear Radio Tuvalu playing an Island song, and then the news theme announces the first morning bulletin. "That's my news theme," I think quietly to myself, remembering I'm back in Tuvalu, where being proud or boastful is a cultural no-no. I gave my friends at Radio Tuvalu a suite of news themes about two years ago, and they've been using them ever since. I'm always pleased to hear that music has found a good and useful home.
High up in the coconut tree, Solo's busy, carefully paring back a frond stalk so the sap can flow better into the bottle he ties beneath it to catch it. Two half full bottles collected overnight are ready to be carried down. Locals use the sap, called toddy, to make a sweet dessert, a local liquor, and for cooking.
Solo is whistling a rather tuneless song, and occasionally breaks into words.
"What are you singing?" I shout up at him.
"Oh, just a song," he says, in his quiet Tuvaluan way.
"What's it about?"
"It's a song to call the maidens," he grins, carefully tying off the second bottle under another pared back frond.
I wonder what his young wife in their nearby house would make of this, but folks are passing as the day begins, and we exchange waves or greetings.
The sun finally punches through the clouds to the east, bathing the atoll in slivers of bright white light, and I feel sweat starting to form on by back.
On the far side of the square, near the entrance to the Government Building, some men in overalls are sweeping up leaves and litter a very bored policeman sits nearby watching. These are prisoners from Funafuti's jail serving time for committing some of the few crimes serious enough to warrant custodial sentences. Most crime here is alcohol related, and the worst offenders are unlicensed, often young, male drivers caught drink driving.
Another challenge for Funafuti, since the roads were paved in 2002 using windfall money from leasing Tuvalu's dot tv internet country code, is the steady increase in vehicles. Not that there's anywhere much to drive to on an atoll this small, but locals seem to manage. More vehicles adds to Funafuti's problems because, in the salt saturated air, rust eats into the chassis, and abandoned cars and trucks litter the atoll, with some being used as part of their defences against sea surges from the lagoon.
I want to get this just right, so I'll show my developing story to some locals. I'm a wordy palagi (white person, outsider) who's here to try to tell part of the current Tuvalu story.
"Oh, wow," Sema says. "That's good."
"Fakafeti lasi," I gratefully say, and return to the keyboard.
A bit later, Hilia Vavae comes by and also looks at my writing. She's the Director of the Tuvalu Meteorological Office, housed in a white bungalow next to the power station on the eastern, Pacific side of the atoll, across the air strip, and the local expert on Tuvaluan weather, with twenty years experience. Her daily data is sent worldwide and added to three day regional weather forecasts, and the fearsome climate calculations and simulations which fuel the scientific debates about global warming.
She's happy too, so I'm satisfied I'm getting this right.
Children are walking past on their way to school, and workers ambling into the Government Building or being dropped off by their partners. What passes for peak hour on Funafuti lasts about five minutes mornings and afternoons.
In six days, the highest predicted tide to hit Tuvalu in almost fifteen years will cause widespread local flooding. If you believed some reports about the country, locals should be huddled in fearful dread, counting the days until their beloved islands sink forever beneath the rising seas. This reporting drives my Tuvaluan friends nuts. "Parachute journalists," they mutter when this hype is published, rising their eyes upward in mixed annoyance and resignation.
Nobody's huddling in fear and dread. Just Tuvaluans going about their everyday business.
Seven centimetres rise might not seem like much, but the highest point of land on this atoll is just 3.7 metres above mean high tide. The difference between the highest points of land here, which might be Mt Funafuti, or a spot at one end of the airstrip; nobody's too sure, and the projected extreme high tide next week is the distance between my sandals and my knees.
With better Internet access, and satellite television and radio being more common, Tuvaluans, and visitors like me, can more easily access the same news and On Line information sources taken for granted in developed countries, hence we know about the Radio Oz and ABC News On Line story, and can call up the original Australian scientific report if we're so minded.
Extreme high tides have been hitting these islands for far longer than the 2,000 years they have been inhabited. Coral atolls have been rising and disappearing for aeons. But scientific data, and stories elders tell about the climate in living and oral memory, around which many island traditions are based, point to something strange, even ominous, and occurring here, and on other low lying island countries.
If Tuvaluans are praying about the weather at all, they're praying there won't be a storm, or a cyclone far away sending surges in this direction when the tide peaks. Tuvalu is outside 'cyclone alley' in the south western Pacific, and so the cyclones that form, menace, and occasionally devastate, Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga to the south rarely hit. The worst cyclone to strike Tuvalu in living memory was Bebe in October, 1972, which almost destroyed Funafuti, and the country was directly affected, but not hit, by three cyclones in 1997. The worst casualty in 1997 was a small motu called Tepuka sa Vili Vili out on the western edge of the lagoon, once capped with dense vegetation and ringed by dazzling coral sand, now a barren wave assaulted brown rock.
Just past the southern end of the airstrip, in August 2002, a storm surge with three huge waves came out of the Pacific without warning and carved a swathe into the atoll 500 metres wide. The area was scoured back to coral rock, vegetation swept into tangled heaps. The video of the waves is shocking and locals who witnessed it were terrified. Luckily, nobody was injured and no houses or fales were damaged. When I saw the damage three months later, I was also shocked, sensing the lurking power of the ocean as I sat on a pile of twisted pandanus and coconut palms. Now it's covered with weedy vegetation. And the Pacific just past the site to the east always spooks me as it incessently batters, nibbles, and sucks at the atoll.
Yesterday morning, I walked south along the airstrip and back up Tuvalu Road, ambling past mixed government offices and homes, greeting locals on the street and in their gardens. A teenager straddled a row of cabbage seedlings, dipping a tin can into a large bucket and carefully watering the plants while a gaggle of laughing children watched me watching him. His mother proudly showed me the cucumber vines, with bright yellow flowers, wrapping themselves over the trellis in front of their door.
Next door, some green and light yellow tomatoes are peeping from the neighbour's vines. Along the road, locals were carefully sweeping up leaves and fronds from the pandanus, breadfruit, and coconut palms, and putting them in bags for collection or use as mulch on their own gardens. Almost every house had a garden, something I had not seen during my last visit here late in 2004.
This is part of Tuvalu's survival strategy. Their diet, heavy with imported foods supplemented by seafood, local produce like pig meat, coconuts, breadfruit, taro, and a large, slow growing, tuber called pulaka, contributes to the high incidence of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes.
Last time I was here, after about three weeks I started to get desperate for any fresh vegetables. The only veges I could find were frozen or so starchy I could only eat a little of them. Now they are more abundant, locally grown fresh vegetables the product of a Taiwanese funded demonstration nursery and garden from which the government distributes seeds and information on gardening.
But they struggle to grow their version of potatoes, pulaka, as successfully as they once could, for reasons I'll explain later.
Yesterday afternoon, after school, the village of Vaikau seemed to be awash with children, playing, riding bikes, and
filling the place with their squeals and laughter. On the veranda outside the church, a pastor was leading some kids in a bible study, all hunched over their large and well thumbed scriptures, and next door, in a Maneapa (open sided meeting house), smaller kids were amusing themselves while a Tuvaluan matron tried to keep their attention long enough to get a few "good words" into their young heads. Without too much success, it seemed to me.
Keeping Tuvalu's strong Christian practices alive is also part of their survival strategy. They start very young.
Later in the slowly gathering twilight, the whole airstrip, from end to end, over a kilometre, was full of people. A vigorous soccer match was underway opposite the Prime Minister's residence, then a touch football game, then some public servants from rival departments hard at volleyball, and on to the south right to the end of the white concrete strip. And everywhere, the laughing children.
This week, there's a workshop on the NAPA, the Tuvaluan National Adaptation Plan of Action, a local version of a global programme to assist especially vulnerable countries respond to the potentially terminal challenges they face.
The gardens in almost every yard on Funafuti are part of the NAPA as are improvements in sea walls to protect the vulnerable atoll shores, steady improvements in fresh water collecting and storage, attempts to deal with the serious solid waste problem depressingly obvious especially at both ends of the atoll's roads, testing of composting toilets as replacements for septic tanks, re-visiting of solar energy as a supplement to ever more expensive diesel generated electricity, reviewing the efficiency of the several Government-owned corporations, and informed and sensitive attention to the threat of HIV/AIDS in this very conservative Christian country. There are about eight or nine HIV-positive Tuvaluans, probably returning seafarers, but nobody talks much about who might be infected, though all are well aware of the threat the disease poses to this tiny country.
The effects of global warming here are not spectacular. They're creeping, insidious, weakening the already fragile fabric that enables this tiny atoll country and society to exist. Add severer storms, or periodic, and entirely natural, extreme high tides, and the Tuvaluan environment could start to disintegrate. Insensitive human intrusions into the environment, and steadily more severe population pressure, don't help either, and these are what the NAPA is aiming to address.
Friday, 24 February 2006: It's raining this morning. Not a raging tropical storm which can hit Funafuti with sudden ferocity, a black wall of cloud rising from the sea and pouring thick rain on the atoll accompanied by deafening thunder and sharp cracks of spectacular lightening, and then pass as quickly as it came, leaving sheets of fresh water to slowly percolate beneath the atoll.
The first time I experienced one of these amazing storms here I was safely inside the meteorological office, having run across the air strip just ahead of it. Back near the airport, children were enjoying a fresh water frolic while vehicles forced their way through the deluge, lights cutting through the gloom and wheels ploughing through the axle deep water.
But much of this rain will turn into poison. Explaining why this morning's rain, and all rain which falls here and is not caught and saved in tanks, turns into poison, is a good way to explain some of the effects of global warming on this tiny, remote, very vulnerable tropical country.
Tropical atolls often have a lens shaped fresh water table just beneath the sandy, salty soil surface into which rain percolates, suspended above denser sea water which also seeps beneath the atoll. Many atoll societies drill into this lens and pump the water up to drink and use and local vegetation draws on this water as well.
In October, 1942, World War Two reached Funafuti, and then two outer islands, Nukufetau, and the northern atoll, Nanumea, when American forces occupied them, setting up better port facilities, buildings, and blasting deeper channels through reefs. On Funafuti Atoll, pulaka pits and hundreds of coconut and pandanus palms were dug up to make way for the first air strip, rock and soil was taken from several large pits dug around the atoll. The 'Seabees' assured locals they were only borrowing the material and the loan would be repaid.
Digging these large, now water and rubbish filled, pits, called 'borrow pits' or taisala by locals, which, because of population pressure and severe land scarcity, have houses or shacks around, and even over, them, shattered parts of the atoll, allowing more sea water to seep into the fresh water lens beneath it.
More recent building, and steadily increasing septic tank constructing, increased the damage, and stresses, on the atoll.
Add the stress from more and severer storms, surges from the open ocean, and slightly but steadily rising sea levels, and you can see why Funafuti is a place where the rain turns into poison.
Fresh water security has been one of the major topics for discussion at this week's NAPA workshop. As are the problems pulaka farmers face trying to grow their large, slow maturing, equivalent of potatoes. The tuber is grown in pits a metre or more deep which are carefully and expertly mulched and tended over two to three years until the large tubers can be harvested.
Now the pulaka pits, which you can see in a few places on Funafuti Atoll, with the tuber's distinctive, elephantine, dark green leaves, are suffering salt water intrusion,
causing yellowy tinges on the leaves and rotting the pulaka from beneath, stunting its growth if the plant manages to survive, and all but breaking the hearts of the declining number of, mostly, older, farmers, whose secrets for successful pulaka growing were whispered in their ears by their fathers, a continuing,
deep, part of island culture and tradition. Talk to these guys and their frustration and worry is written all over their brown, wizened faces.
In the afternoon I visit the Secretary to Government, Panapasi Nelesone, the country's most senior civil servant, the man responsible for Funafuti's preparations for next week's extreme high tide and helping oversea its long term economic and social survival. The Disaster Committee has already made preparations for evacuations from especially vulnerable houses, relocating evacuees in local Maneapa if the need arises. Radio Tuvalu will play a key role in informing the country about any developments and necessary disaster precautions.
While the predictions on paper show a peak of 3.26 metres predicted at 5.30pm on Tuesday, February 28, with a new moon rising, actual projections based on January's peak, which exceeded the projections, and more recent sea level data, are pointing to a peak approaching 3.4 metres. But nobody with whom I have talked today has expressed any real worry about what next week might bring.
Late morning, February 25: Saturday's a day for shopping, washing, and cooking on Funafuti Atoll. The larger fusi in the central village of Fongafale is busy. Shoppers balance large bags of flour or rice on their motorbikes as they return home. Children are everywhere. Around the atoll, women are doing the weekly washing, airing bedding on mats in the sunshine, and clothes swinging from lines strung between coconut or pandanus palms in the almost nonexistent breeze.
Slathered in 40+ sunscreen, with hat firmly planted on my head, I'm steadily regaining my sense of balance as I tool north up Funafuti Road on a small, single gear motorbike which sounds like a large mosquito.
The breeze of movement is welcome, it's ferociously hot this morning. Nick, the husband of a local journalist friend of mine, and a mate, drive by and tell me they're heading almost to the end of the atoll to get some coconuts, so I agree to meet them there later.
The atoll gets thinner the further north you go, so I see more of the Pacific Ocean on my right, through gaps between houses and fales, and Te Namo on my left, with houses, fales, and pig pens built precariously close to the usually calmer water.
Along the way, I see another friend, Ben, from the Government Information Technology Office -real dot tv, as opposed to the other web sites with tv internet domain names leased from the Tuvaluan Government through the US e-commerce and security corporation, Verisign. This agreement helped pay for the paved roads like I'm riding on this morning, and brings in about $US 2 million a year in overseas income for Tuvalu's tiny, $US 11 million economy.
Ben's wreathed in smoke from an earth oven, an umo, he's tending on the narrow lagoon shore just off the road, the pleasant smoke from smouldering coconut husks heating the white stones in the shallow pit wafting with him as he walks towards me.
"Talofa Ben! What are you doing?" "Killed a pig," he replies, smiling, pointing at the gutted and dressed pig draped over a low tree branch ready to be buried under the umo's hot stones.
"It's our daughter's first birthday party tonight," he says. "Would you like to come?"
Children's first birthdays are celebrated with feasts and great joy here. Though medical care has improved enormously, not so long ago a child's first birthday was a good sign they would survive to adulthood. Ben's spontaneous invitation is typically Tuvaluan, and I gratefully accept. I knew his daughter was turning one because we'd flown from Suva on the same plane, carefully nursing a very large chocolate birthday cake on the rear seats of the small aircraft.
He waves me off and I continue my journey north up Funafuti Road, with more houses and fales on either side of the narrowing road. Driving around Funafuti's like driving around Australian country roads. Everybody has a nod, a wave, or a cheery smile as you pass.
Also along the way I see many graves of Tuvaluans who have passed away, some in the front yards of houses, and others gathered along the narrowing
Pacific side of the atoll in cemetaries. Many are obviously very respectfully tended, pointing to the role ancestors play in Tuvaluan society, linking the living with their past in the central core of Tuvaluan existence, Te Fenua, the people, their culture, their island or even their particular part of their home island, past, present, with the children being their future. To really understand a Tuvaluan, you must try very hard indeed to understand their Te Fenua.
Seeing Nick's car parked on the roadside near a thick plantation of very tall coconut trees, I pull over, carefully set the bike on its stand, and wander into the knee deep grass, and welcome shade to find him carefully studying the palms to see which one was worth climbing today.
Behind me, over the narrow bitumen road, the relentless Pacific, with the tide just on the turn towards rising, is roiling against the atoll. The still blue green Te Namo peeps through the trees and undergrowth in front. In the cool shade, a few mosquitoes seek out the unusual change in their Tuvaluan blood diet: me.
Making his decision, Nick wraps some rope around his feet, grabs the palm, hops up to plant his roped feet against the trunk and shimmies up it. I move safely away to watch as he twists the green, head sized nuts loose to fall with a loud thud below. With a dozen nuts on the ground, he shimmies down, unties his feet, husks one on a steel spike he's planted in the ground, and hands it to me.
"Fakafeti," I reply, reaching for a pen from my shirt pocket to poke out one of the nut's eyes. Natural container carefully opened, I put the hole to my mouth, tip my head back and enjoy one of nature's true gifts.
Sunday morning, February 26: It's good manners on Funafuti Atoll for palagi visitors to attend church, so I'm outside the Fongafale Church dressed in my sandals, sulu, white shirt, and blue tie, nodding to folks wandering along the road to the biggest EKT church on the island.
Paying my respects to the pastor and his wife before the service, we discuss how locals are thinking about the looming extreme high tide. He's not worried, saying God will protect the island and its people, and his wife nods in agreement. Many, especially older or more devout, Tuvaluans explicitly believe God's promise to Noah to never again flood the earth, so talk of sea level rise caused by global warming terminally threatening Tuvalu's very existence sometime in the future is dismissed as palagi stuff.
The service is in Tuvaluan, and the sermon from Exodus. The pastor tells the worshippers how, in spite of everything, Moses steadfastly trusted in God to bring his people to the Promised Land. In the closing announcements, the pastor reminds his people that this week will bring extreme high tides, that the church will assist the disaster authorities, and asks for prayers that the weather remains still and calm.
While not disbelieving of the power of prayer, I also take science seriously, so, later that still, calm Sunday afternoon, I braved the ferocious heat, walked across the blindingly bright air strip, sandals crunching on the packed dry path to the Met Office front door, and checked out the latest three day forecast in the blessedly cool air conditioned white bungalow. Continuing fine, hot, light winds from the North West or East, and a few passing showers. More of the same weather of the past week.
Where only a few minutes ago, I'd walked along a hot, dry, packed sandy track, looking left and right across the Met Office's green tough grass lawn with the Stevenson Screen instrument hut to one side, water was now literally bubbling up through cracks in the track and surrounds, visibly spreading along the ground. I could hear the 'blip, burble, pop' of the bubbling and seeping from the larger cracks.
The water was flowing across the track where I was standing in stunned amazement, deep enough to lap my sandal's soles, my toes being washed by water too hot to tolerate. Fearsome heat from the sun all around me, dazzlingly bright reflection of light and heat from the sand at my feet, and now hot salty water oozing up and flowing past me as well.
I'd seen video and still pictures of this occurring outside the Met Office before, and been told about it by witnesses, but to be standing in the middle of it was genuinely astonishing. I had to document this myself, so I ran back to my hotel room, grabbed my video and still cameras, shouted for colleagues to join me, and ran back across the air strip.
Bemused locals, who'd seen all this before, were gathering on the air strip to watch us, and, yet again, see parts of their island home inundated.
As arranged, a driver and a truck from the hotel found us and we jumped aboard and headed north towards a taisala and a nearby maneapa we'd heard was especially low lying. Sure enough, water was lapping out of the flooded taisala along a side road, and across the pond, agitated pigs were grunting and squealing in their pens while their owners watched in case rescue was needed. Children were swimming and jumping into the pond, and splashing around in the steadily rising stream. Locals sat on their front steps and stoops, surveying the flood.
The Sunday tide was predicted to peak at 4.00pm at 3.1 metres. Massive pressure against the shattered atoll, coupled with a near full lens beneath it meant that the only place the salt water could go was up through it.
The still and calm weather, with no breeze pushing the waves, meant that the
tide height would determine whether or not there was flooding as the lagoon overflowed its low bank. To the east, the Pacific Ocean was kept at bay by the old berm tossed up by Cyclone Bebe in October, 1972.
Along Funafuti Road, we glimpsed yards with water pooling in them, watched by locals worried their homes might be flooded, while life went on as normal elsewhere.
Along the narrowing road I'd travelled yesterday, Te Namo lapped dangerously against the shore, but it only broke through at one place, a narrow spot near the rusting Van Camp wreck, the mother ship of a three vessel fleet wrecked thereby Bebe's ferocity. Some rocks and debris were scattered over the road and the occasional wave pushed them around.
Houses planted on, and in some cases, even over the northern taisala appeared to be safe, but a couple were in danger closer to the road.
At the narrowest part of
the atoll, a causeway linking Funafuti with a
northern motu, no more than 20 metres wide, while
the Pacific roiled to the east and Te
Namo lapped to the west, every larger,
possibly seventh, wave futilely spent itself
against the concrete.
Tuesday, February 28: Bright yellow sunshine bathes the atoll, a gently cooling breeze caresses it and rustles the palm trees, and, with the tide approaching its lowest, the lagoon's colour ranges from bright green close to shore to deep azure blue. A few locals are lazing in the shallows, or tending to their boats for a fishing trip later today.
I cannot fully describe this glorious sight, tropical atoll paradise travel brochure stuff, perhaps.
But there was no glory for several households on the edge of a northern taisala last night, because, with a slightly higher tide peaking at over 3.2 metres just before 5.00pm, polluted water flooded into their homes, and they were evacuated by the Red Cross. Sea water seepage occurred around the atoll, but Te Namo and the Pacific did not break through to cause any serious damage. Some locals told how they'd caught talapia fish washed into their kitchens from the overflowing taisala.
Today's the day, according to the predictions, that Tuvalu will experience the highest tide between 1990 and 2016, on paper at 3.26 metres at about 5.30pm.
The Met Office folks say the persistent high altitude convergence over the country is making the weather so benign, but some Tuvaluans no doubt believe Te Atua (The Almighty) heard their prayers and blessed them with good weather.
Funafuti's thin lifeline to the south, its thrice weekly Air Fiji flights, was severed again today, the flight cancelled, this time due to a vandalism at this end. Just south of the air strip, the BBC crew that's here shooting segments for nature documentaries, has set up a time lapse camera on a concrete slab near the entrance to a small cluster of houses and fales near the Assemblies of God church and hall.
The ground is hard packed light grey-brown sandy dirt. Some locals are standing or sitting around, and there are a couple of damp patches already showing.
Getting some 'before' pictures, we head further south to where Te Namo's broken through near the end of the road. A few young men are clowning around with a soccer ball in the pooling water, and wave at us as I turn the vehicle around and retrace the drive north.
Only fifteen minutes have passed, but the little village is now deeply awash, with children running about pushing small pieces of wood through the flood like toy motor boats watched by stoic adults hoping it doesn't rise any higher.
Out along the long air strip, the sports teams look like clusters of ants, occasionally tossing up splashing water as a player chases a ball to the flooded verges.
The Taiwanese garden supervisor is anxious about the seepage into his gardens. Earlier he soaked the place with fresh water to try to protect the plants.
More flooding scattered along Funafuti to the north. I'm reminded of storms back home, where some suburbs can be flooded or damaged, while nearby, evenings are entirely normal. Rather strange, driving north through 'suburban' Fongafale with its yellow street lights, towards flooded taisala and more scattered, local flooding peeping around some lower parts.
At the Met Office, its front yard again awash in shin deep water lapping at the front step, Hilia accesses the raw data from the tide monitor at the port complex, and exclaims that this has been a record high tide for Funafuti - just over 3.438 metres, exactly as she predicted. She writes the measurement, exact to three decimal places, on a whiteboard.
We say goodnight and wade and then walk home, grateful to either the benign weather or God's benevolence, or both, that this high tide left Tuvalu and Funafuti relatively unscathed.
Friday afternoon, March 3: A late afternoon tropical storm is drenching Funafuti Atoll, pouring thick rain across the island from even thicker, darker clouds which blew in from the North West. Peering out from the Real .TV office, I see children enjoying a late afternoon frolic in the cooling rain. Workers are braving the deluge to get home, their umbrellas all but useless.
The fresh rain water will quickly disappear once the storm passes, topping up the water tanks, percolating into the polluted water table beneath the atoll, and turning into poison beneath the ground.
The Prime Minister, Hon Maatia Toafa, and the Secretary to Government, Panapasi Nelesone, watch the storm with us and chat about the week and its record high tides at a time when international attention is increasingly focussing on global warming and the related rises in sea levels. They know that they cannot rely on prayer alone, and are intimately involved in the plans to ensure the survival of Tuvalu and its people.
The extreme high tides this week have nothing to do with global warming and sea level rise, even though the seas have risen slightly over the years of detailed measurements. But the attention paid to global warming makes the world more acutely aware of the plight of those living in the vast Pacific Ocean.
Maybe the sustained active convergence zone which made the local weather so benign can be partially attributed to global warming, but the models used are just not sensitive enough to be useful even over a large area like Tuvalu's 900,000 square kilometre exclusive economic zone.
If the extreme tides had coincided with a storm like the one which ended the week there would have been much worse flooding and more damage for a fragile society. Global warming and its creeping effects on Tuvalu are weakening an already fragile environment vulnerable to extreme high tides, storms, sea surges with damage amplified by erosion, ground water pollution and seepage, loss of vegetation and weakened reefs. Tuvaluans with sympathetic palagi assistance are not waiting for this to happen. Instead they are struggling to ameliorate the worst effects and develop a long term survival plan, improving the health and education of the children and providing them with the means to draw on the best the world has to offer.
Fakafeti lasi lasi, my dear Tuvaluan friends.
'Tofa from Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu.
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