Tuvalu News


By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (November 27, 2001 -- Agence France-Presse)---One of the worldís smallest states, Polynesiaís tiny Tuvalu, has a word for whatís coming at it -- calamity.

At no more than five meters (15 feet) above sea level, Tuvaluís nine atolls, home to 10,000 people, are vulnerable to any sea level rising.

"A decade ago (and more) we learned that bearing down upon Tuvalu is the prospect of global warming and rising sea levels," Prime Minister Faimalaga Luka writes in the forward to "Time and Tide: The Islands of Tuvalu" (Lonely Planet), a rare and emotional photo essay of the remote islands.

"We greeted this news with a mixture of worry, fear and dismay. Since then our sense of unease has grown."

Luka says all island states, particularly the smaller ones, shared the emotion and frustration.

"The vulnerable geography is everywhere. Here in Tuvalu, there is hardly a doubt that a calamity is steadily brewing. The future of Tuvalu is uncertain. Will our land, so obviously at risk, vanish? But Tuvaluís voice in the debate is small, rarely heard, and heeded not at all."

Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler and Australian photographer Peter Bennetts have taken to Tuvalu with a passion, made more striking by its timing. At its launching in Melbourne earlier this month Bennetts revealed that Australia was trying to put Middle Eastern asylum seekers onto Tuvalu, which has a combined land area of just 26 square kilometers (10 square miles).

It came just months after Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock had dismissed Tuvaluís appeal for greater immigration access to Australia, saying that they were facing rising sea levels.

Tuvaluís plight first came to international attention when then Prime Minister Bikenibeu Paeniu in 1992 told a Pacific summit in Tahiti that Tuvalu was "the world's first victims of climate change."

Wheeler says Tuvalu "could easily be the first country to disappear. Even if it doesnít sink beneath the water line, global warming could bring other equally disastrous changes."

Some science argues against that and one key study finds no evidence of rising sea levels.

"The data does not support any sea-level rise at all," Wolfgang Scherer, the director of Australiaís National Tidal Facility (NTF) at Flinderís University in Adelaide says.

He said that there had been no change in average sea level over eight years.

Scherer had an explanation for the willingness of Pacific politicians to accept the notion that they are sinking.

"When you live there on a day to day basis and you do have water lapping at your feet when you have storm surges coming through it is not a very comfortable experience," he said.

"Sea levels have been rising since the last ice age."

Bennetts says the tide gauge has only been in Tuvalu for a decade -- "a relative blip."

"Seems to me that the NTF reads the gauge and the results are interpreted by or to suit Canberra," he says.

He told AFP that in the four years he had been in Tuvalu he had seen no observable change but had been taken to islands where once sandy beaches were "now no more than a frequently awash rock, denuded and eroded by a succession of storms and king tides."

Encroaching salinity was killing crops.

"Tuvaluans wonít awake one day to find themselves neck deep in rising seas," Bennetts says. "However, climate change will manifest itself in many ways; agriculture and fisheries will be affected by changing rainfall patterns, ocean temperatures and currents. Add frequency of violent storms, encroaching salinity and Tuvaluansí island homes may be rendered uninhabitable, forcing Tuvaluans to look to larger neighboring countries for help and ultimately a new home."

The outside world has crowded into Tuvalu before.

In the book, 88-year-old Kelese Simona of Nukulaelae atoll ("the land of beautiful women") told of his fatherís story of the day in 1863 when blackbirders or slave traders from Peru showed up.

Says Kelese: "A ship turned up outside the lagoon and invited the people on board to eat, sing and dance, but they were lying. Once the people were on board they locked them up and sailed away. Two men escaped and swam back to shore but the rest were never seen again."

The Peruvians stole 250 people, leaving just 100 on the atoll.

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