Tuvalu News

Asia Report

Posted at 9:08 p.m. PDT Tuesday, September 28, 1999

Tiny Tuvalu Hopes the World Can Hold back the Waves

UNITED NATIONS, (Reuters) - By this time next century, the Pacific state of Tuvalu may not even be a speck on the map.

For if scientists are right and global warming continues to raise sea levels, the nine island atolls making up Earth's smallest country are doomed.

"We are very, very worried. If the forecasts are true, the sea level will rise between 50 cm (1 foot 7-1/2 inches) and one meter (3 feet 3 inches) over the next 100 years," Enele Sopoaga, the country's ambassador to Fiji, said Tuesday.

This would spell disaster for Tuvalu, which sits just three feet above sea level.

"We have already lost some of the smaller islands in our atolls over the last 10 years. When we have cyclones and hurricanes, the situation becomes ever more severe," Sopoaga told Reuters in an interview.

"What can we do about it? There's very little we can do," he said on the sidelines of a special U.N. debate on the plight of small island states.

Tuvalu, which gained full independence from Britain in 1978 but says it cannot afford to become a member of the United Nations, should by rights still be basking in complete obscurity in the western Pacific, to the northwest of Fiji.

Its population of 10,000, perched on just 10 square miles of land, live off fish and locally grown root vegetables, as they have done for centuries.

But there is no escape from the often brutal realities of the modern world.

"The sea is already intruding into the ground water, which has become more brackish and salty. It's affecting the ground water and root crops upon which people survive," Sopoaga said.

"This is worse than a war. We're talking about the complete disappearance of countries. This may not happen to our generation, but what about 50 years to come? What future do we want to leave to our children and grandchildren?" he asked.

But persuading the world's most powerful industrialized nations to do something to help is proving very hard.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a bold U.N. plan to protect the environment by cutting greenhouse gases, looks doomed by a dispute between industrialized states and advanced developing nations over proposed reductions in emissions from fossil fuels.

Many scientists blame global warming for contributing to a melting of polar ice caps, thereby raising ocean levels.

"We're very angry with the response from the industrialized countries, especially the United States, to the Kyoto Protocol. Already they're talking about throwing it away," Sopoaga said.

"In the middle of this argument, you have the small island states who have never made a contribution to the problem and will never do so, and yet they are the first people to be affected by rising sea levels."

Sopoaga is also infuriated by what he calls the patronizing attitude of major powers to Tuvalu's plight.

"A lot of people have suggested we all migrate, leave our islands, but that is ridiculous," he fumed.

"You can't put the whole of Tuvalu in the middle of United States or Australia, can you? You're talking about shifting a people, their culture and the traditions of a whole country."

He admitted there was no point to his losing his temper.

"You have to have a purpose. You can shout as much as you want, but you have to find actions which result in changes in attitude by the other side. We feel very strongly about this, but how we go about it is another matter," he said.

Tuvalu, which relies heavily on development aid and the income it receives from letting foreign trawlers fish in its waters, is now considering whether to join the United Nations to push its concern about climate change.

For the time being, it can do little but look at ways of adapting to changes in weather patterns and gather accurate data to monitor environmental changes.

"Our people are a religious people. This is the main topic of our church services and prayers. We believe God will somehow show his hand of protection to the small island states and Tuvalu," Sopoaga said.

"It's a very, very difficult situation. Our plight is really. ..." He fell silent as tears sprang to his eyes.

"I really don't know where we will be in 50 years' time, whether there will still be a place called Tuvalu."

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