Consider Exodus as Sea Level Rises
David Fickling in Sydney
Saturday July 19, 2003
Faced with the prospect of being swamped by rising sea levels, the
Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is considering evacuating its 9,300
With a highest point just five metres above sea level, Tuvalu is one of
the world's most low-lying countries. Half its population is crammed on
the 30 hectare (75 acre) Funafuti atoll, which is only three metres
above the waves.
With global sea levels predicted to rise by more than 80cm over the next
century, Tuvaluans are living on borrowed time. The only solution,
according to the government, is to transport the entire population
"We don't know when the islands will be completely covered," says
secretary to the Tuvalu government Panapasi Nelesone. "But we need to
start working on this now."
Nearly 3,000 Tuvaluans already live overseas, and a government programme
is now relocating 75 more every year.
But Tofiga Falani, the president of the Tuvalu Congregational church,
says that more urgent action is needed. "We must know that someone will
be able to provide land for us, before a storm washes our islands away
altogether," he said.
He is in Melbourne this week lobbying Australia to set aside land to
serve as a new home for Tuvalu's people when they finally quit their
nine inhabited atolls.
Fresh data on sea level rises have given a new urgency to his concerns.
The consensus last year from Australia's national tide facility (NTF),
which monitors Pacific ocean, levels, was that there had been no
significant changes around Tuvalu for 10 years.
Some analysts even suggested that the aftermath of El Nino could cause
sea levels in the area to drop by up to 30cm in future. That view is
The most recent figures suggest that Tuvalu's sea levels have risen
nearly three times as fast as the world average over the past decade,
and are now 5cm higher than in 1993.
The NTF's Bill Mitchell says that such figures should still be regarded
as provisional. "We've had a large El Nino which appears to have raised
sea levels across the western Pacific, so rises in future may well not
be as dramatic."
Tuvaluans are used to seeing islets vanish beneath the waves with
cyclones, but their country is likely to become uninhabitable long
before the waves finally close over them.
Islanders already drink from rainwater tanks to preserve the atolls'
scanty groundwater, but the seepage of salt water into farmland has
destroyed crops and made islanders dependent on canned imports.
Tuvalu's Polynesian people arrived in the islands 2,000 years ago by way
of Tonga, Samoa and Tokelau, but international borders mean fewer
relocation options are available. The neighbouring state of Kiribati has
dozens of uninhabited islands, but it is facing its own population
Eleniu Poulos, president of UnitingJustice Australia, a church agency,
says that the Tuvaluans should be granted one of the uninhabited islands
at the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef.
"You spell an end to a culture if you split them up, but they would be
happy to give up their national sovereignty as long as they're able to
stay together. Australia has no shortage of land," she said.
Canberra's immigration department is believed to take a dim view of the
Tuvaluan desire for land to call their own.
But Panapasi Nelesone says: "We cannot just float on the water hoping
that the sea will go down again."