Sinking Feeling in Tuvalu
Wednesday, 28 August, 2002, 03:23 GMT
By Angie Knox
Tuvalu's nine islands are little more than thin
ribbon-like atolls scattered in the immensity of the Pacific Ocean.
Maybe it's to do with that greenhouse effect that's been announced all
over the world. But I didn't imagine it would be like this
At their highest point, they stand no more than four metres (13 feet)
above sea level and if predictions of rising sea levels caused by global
warming are correct, they could become the world's first casualties of
That is something that is worrying the country's 11,000 inhabitants.
Retired sea captain Lotu Pasefika stands in front of his house,
knee-deep in water, watching palm fronds and logs drift past in the
swirling, muddy floodwaters.
Just 30m away, huge ocean breakers crash onto the coral and rock rampart
that forms the only barrier between the sea and Tuvalu's main island of
"The first wave broke in when I was down the beach feeding my pigs," he
"It came without warning. So I went to alert people. The second wave
came in then, and that was the one that brought all the debris ashore."
"We've had high tides before. But this is the first time it's reached my
doorstep," he explained, gesturing to the water still flowing down the
island's main road.
The local people are shaking their heads in bewilderment - it is August,
and this is not the right season for such high tides.
"Maybe it's to do with that greenhouse effect that's been announced all
over the world," said one woman.
"But I didn't imagine it would be like this," she added.
Like her neighbours, she is packing her belongings, ready to decamp to
another part of the island for the night. Another high tide is expected,
and they have been warned there might be further flooding.
The freak four-metre high waves which hit the tiny Pacific nation of
Tuvalu left little behind them except salt-damaged gardens.
But according to Hilia Vavae, director of Tuvalu's Meteorological
Service, it is just one more worrying sign of the very real danger
Tuvalu faces from rising sea levels.
Scientists have predicted an 88cm rise in sea levels in the next century
- if that is proved correct, Tuvalu, like other low-lying atoll
countries in the Pacific Ocean, could find itself underwater within 50
That process may already have started. Dotted along the reef that
encircles Funafuti's lagoon lie a string of islets. They are popular
picnic spots with the locals but they are threatened by erosion.
On a boat trip across the lagoon, Ms Vavae points to what looks like a
rocky outcrop, just above the surface of the sea.
"That was the island of Tepuka Savilivili," she explained. "Now you can
see all the sand and gravel have been washed away and all that's left is
the base of the island."
In June 1997, Cyclone Keli dealt the final blow to Tepuka Savilivili,
sweeping away the last of the coconut trees and vegetation.
For environmental officer Pepetua, the island is a grim reminder of what
fate could await the rest of Tuvalu.
"For the future, I'm very worried about beach erosion," she said.
"Everyone in Tuvalu can see that problem. It happens on the mainland and
on the small islands. So it's most likely that in the future the whole
land might be washed away."
Not everyone is so pessimistic. In his traditional garden, behind his
house, Kamuta Latasi peeks out from under the huge, elephant-ear-sized
leaves of swamp taro, or pulaka.
To compensate for poor soil, pulaka is grown throughout Tuvalu in pits
cut into the limestone base of the atolls.
But it does not tolerate saltwater and in recent years more and more
pulaka growers have been noticing that their tubers have been rotting in
the ground because seawater has seeped up into the pits.
Mr Latasi thinks he has found a solution.
"I've cemented the bottom and sides of this pit to prevent the seawater
coming up," he explained. "Now, with this kind of method, you can grow
pulaka anywhere in the islands."
But given the flooding, erosion and freak waves, perhaps it is not
surprising that many of Tuvalu's people are considering leaving.
"I'm worried about the islands," said one woman with tears in her eyes.
"This is the best island I know, and I think it's going to end up under
the sea. We're thinking of migrating to New Zealand. I don't want my
children to see this, it's enough."
Plea to the World
Some, like Mr Pasefika, are determined to stay.
"But to be frank with you, I see no future for my grandchildren. My home
is here, but my family, they have to go," he said.
He is very concerned about the changes he has seen in Tuvalu over the
years and has a message for the rest of the world.
"People have to stop doing things to damage our environment," he said.
"People must look at us and see us as people who want to lead a normal
life, but we cannot lead a normal life because other people are doing
what they want for their own development. What about us?"