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By Robert Keith-Reid

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (June 16, 2000 - Islands Business/PINA Nius Online)---Whatever the exact pace and nature of climate change may be, the nine atolls of Tuvalu, averaging 3 to 5 meters (about 10 to 17 feet) above sea level, appear to be the first candidates to fall victim to it. At the height of spring tides a few months ago the lowest parts of Funafuti atoll, the seat of government, were under up to half-a-meter (1.65 feet) of seawater, Tuvalu's chief meteorologist said at the Rarotonga climate change conference.

Planters of taro at Funafuti for centuries grew it in compost pits. Now more and more of them are resorting to growing it in old kerosene drums because local soils are becoming too salty.

At international climate change conferences Tuvalu uses its minute national size and frightening vulnerability to high seas to support its case for the drastic curbing of greenhouse gas emissions.

Seluka Seluka, head of Tuvalu's environment unit, believes that Tuvaluans can keep a place for themselves on home territory by adapting traditional systems because "they are cheap and the technical expertise is within the community." Recent meteorological services reports confirmed that in the past decade there was an increasing frequency of strong winds in Tuvalu, he told the conference. "The issue of climate change and sea level rise is the major concern for the Tuvalu government right now."

In fighting for a future, Tuvalu is laying stress on insurance for its water supply, its coastline areas, agriculture and fisheries. Underground water drawn from wells is the traditional supply, but accessibility and freshness varies a lot.

Well-water turns bad when the sea surges across the land. The trend is to rely more on rain directed to water tanks and cisterns from iron roofs. Except for long dry spells the supply is normally adequate. But Tuvalu has to become much more expert in water management.

Serious problem: With more frequent strong winds, and sand, gravel and stone mining, coastal erosion could become a serious problem in the next decade, Seluka said.

There's a ban on cutting down shoreline trees, burning of any kind in conservation areas, or cutting trees for firewood. "I have my doubts that these enforced legislative controls will completely resolve the problem, but at least slow the process of beach mining."

About 70% of Tuvalu's 27 square kilometers (10.8 square miles) is good for agriculture, except when high spring tides in January-March spoil compost pits for three to six months. High winds knock out banana production for eight to 10 months and coconut yields and other crops for six to 10 months.

Strong winds and storm surges severely restrict fishing, wreck fishing boats, kill corals by dumping sediment on them and harm fish breeding grounds.

Seluka said clearing shoreline vegetation for building sites and poor engineering for sea wall and fisheries harbor projects have contributed to faster coastal erosion. Tuvalu needs to be more careful about building codes.

Ironically, the growth of a cash economy threatens the country's physical survival, he said, because money brought new outlooks that diluted traditional systems of adaptation and survival. "The most unpopular systems have been slowly left out as we move on through time."

Old conservation and survival tricks need to be researched, revived and if necessary made compulsory by law. "Government is currently undertaking a constitutional review to enhance the effectiveness of these recognized cultural systems to have culture and laws work in parallel."

Tuvalu's security, he said, lay in such measures as the intensive coastal plant of mangroves and trees, protection and management of water sources, thoughtful engineering and the exploitation to the full of all relevant types of sustainable technology.

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