Tuvalu: small island, global problems
Posted Mon, 23 Feb 2004
Tuvalu in the South Pacific has hardly any crime and no television service or
advertising, and no one takes credit cards. Prime Minister Saufatu Sopo'aga's
unmarked office is a humble two-bedroomed house and he usually answers the phone
The treasury is in an anonymous building and the solitary bank closes each day
at 1pm because there is not much cash.
To environmental groups this is a paradise-about-to-be-lost; they and the
government fear the low-lying group of islands is sinking, a victim of higher
ocean levels caused by global warming.
Tuvalu has already played a role in the scientific understanding of atolls and a
large coral stone monument in the grounds of Government House marks its
contribution. Sopo'aga is puzzled by the feature. "I'm not sure what it's for
really," he said.
When Charles Darwin put forward his evolution theories in 1842, he argued that
coral islands had been built on slowly subsiding volcanic rock. The implications
sparked long debate and resulted in the Royal Society deciding to bore into the
coral to see if they contained traces of shallow water organisms.
Carrying out the society's work, a team from the University of Sydney drilled
here in 1897. They left behind them the monument and the debate unresolved.
Tuvalu, between Australia and Hawaii, is a nation of 11 000 people occupying 26
square kilometres scattered over an exclusive economic zone of 1.3 million
It has eight clans — Tuvalu means "eight together" — living on nine atolls,
including Nukulaelae or the "isle of beautiful women". The British, colonial
masters who held sway until 1979, even though the United States claimed the
atoll, left no substantial buildings.
Taiwan, in return for diplomatic recognition, has just built the nation a
three-floor government office while Tuvalu has used Internet revenues — its
suffix is the commercially useful "dot tv" — to pave its few roads.
A government official who did not want to be identified wondered if somebody
might give them a parliament as well: at the moment the 12-seat Legislative
Assembly meets when it has to in a hired hall next to the runway.
Seafarers main income
On the nearby Amatuku islet the Tuvalu Maritime Training Institute provides the
nation with its economic wealth: seafarers. Institute head Jonathan Gayton says
each year they train 60 youth up to seamen rating standard. Mainly German owned
shipping companies pick them up and currently 375 Tuvaluans are serving on ships
— more than the number of people who work for the government.
Tuvaluans are popular because they are physically strong and have a culture of
traditional sea faring. "Tuvaluans have the advantage of being cheap too,
cheaper than Filipinos, and they are good at their jobs," Gayton said.
Last week unusually high tides hit the tiny nation, which is never more than
five metres above mean sea level. The tides were a reminder to all that Tuvalu
could one day disappear.
The water did not crash in over the shore, as might have been expected, but
welled up through the solid ground to transform much of the main island's
interior into a sea water lake, slowly killing off root crops.
Sopo'aga and his predecessors have told alarmed Tuvaluans that this is a result
of a rise in sea levels caused by Western nations' carbon emissions that lead to
Resigned to their fate
Other's disagree and say Tuvalu is a dynamic set of atolls and what is happening
is a natural process. Tuvaluans are resigned to their fate. "There is a change
in the sea level," said Tuaga Petelu, a father of three, sitting in his home
surrounded by seawater seeping up from the ground.
"What can we do, we have to wait and see whats happening," he said.
On Amatuku, the sea also wells up with the spring tide, flooding the country's
oldest building, a London Missionary Society classroom believed to be about 140
Its position suggests that at the time it was built, the building never flooded.
No-one is sure why it does now.