WONDERING, WAITING ON TENUOUS TUVALU

By Anders Mathlein

HONOLULU (Pacific Islands Report, Dec. 1) – Funafuti lagoon is illuminated by unearthly hues of blue and turquoise. A man in an outrigger canoe is silently passing by, a rare sight as motorboats are replacing the Polynesians traditional means of transportation.

After the cool of the very early morning, it will soon be sweltering hot. If you go by bike, you will quickly be soaked with sweat. Luckily, there are no hills to conquer; nowhere is the island more than a few meters above sea level.

We stop in the shade of the coconut trees. Fairy terns as white as snow and with beaks of lacquer black are patrolling the pale blue sky. Some distance further on, the road passes one of the narrowest spots on the island. It is not more than 20 meters between the ocean’s thundering surf and the lagoon’s sandy beach and calm waters.

This tiny exception in the void of the Pacific ocean is the main island and the administrative centre of Tuvalu, one of the smallest, most isolated and most vulnerable nations in the world. The nine specks of land that the 11 000 inhabitants occupy, are hardly visible on most maps: the total landmass is 26 square kilometres, scattered over about 775 000 square kilometres of ocean.

Tuvalu may be tiny, but the nation has had a great deal of publicity due to environmental debate. Here, the greenhouse effect and the climate change are said to be destroying the islands through rising sea level and erosion. Tuvalu may be an Atlantis of the South Seas, a sunken monument over the rich world’s insatiable appetite for consumption and their lack of concern as to the consequences.

If this is to become a reality, no one knows, but the majority of the islanders that we talk to think that doomsday is on its way. Meega Hipa, for instance, who is resting in his hammock by the side of the road, says that he thinks that these islands may disappear within fifty years.

He has been a seaman for about 30 years, and travelled all over the globe. The seamen of Tuvalu are well respected by the merchant fleets of the world. They are children of the sea, descendants of the "Vikings of the sunrise" who explored the immense Pacific Ocean by canoe.

"People talk a lot about the climate," says Meega Hipa. "The weather is really weird these days and we can see that the tides are much higher. My sons live in New Zealand, and I plan to move there eventually."

The houses along the road have tin roofs and are shaded by breadfruit trees, pandanus and coconut palms, which are a species that can survive in the poor soil. In many coconut trees, you may observe bottles where the sap from the inflorescence is collected to become the national drink - palm toddy. The whispers of brooms fill the air as the women collect the leaves that have fallen during the night. A dog is panting in the heat, pigs are sleeping in tiny sties on the beach. Little children calls out to the strangers, "bye, bye!" or "palagi!" - the word for "white man" across the Pacific.

Virtually all the buildings on Funafute have been erected after 1972, the year when the monstrous hurricane "Bebe" hit the island and crushed everything in its path. The wreck of the Korean fishing ship that the hurricane threw up on the beach is now so rusted that the hull seems just as fragile as crispbread.

Those nightmarish days in 1972 are celebrated every year, because it must have been a divine act of mercy that not more than five people perished. Christianity is deeply rooted since missionaries reached the islands in the 1860´s. The women still wear long dresses even when they bathe in the lagoon.

Some of the elderly islanders do not believe in the gloomy predictions for Tuvalu. They trust the promise that God gave to Noah according to the ninth chapter of the book of Moses. There, the Lord says that no flood will ever destroy the earth again, and the sign of the pact - the rainbow - may often be seen in these islands, where the rainfall is about 3,500 millimetres per year.

"Yes, they ask why God would withdraw the land He has given us," says Temulisa Haumaa, who is principal teacher at Funafuti’s largest primary school. "But I believe that Tuvalu is going down. Nowadays, my courtyard is flooded at high tide, it never happened before."

Her colleague, Easter Talesi, agrees:

"The children are worried by what they hear, both from rumours and scientists," she says. "In my family, we are saving money to be able to migrate to New Zealand."

In the yard, there is a bustle of nicely clad children in blue and white school uniforms. Tuvalu is regarded as one of the least developed nations in the world, but it is also among those who per capita gets the most foreign aid. Literacy is good, and thanks to the traditional extended family, there is a basic welfare for everyone.

Laumano Lausama is 13 years old, and she is scared

"We have to tell other countries what is happening," says Laumano. "In school, we have written poems about the greenhouse effect."

On the widest part of Fongafale, the largest islet in Funafuti atoll, it is roughly 400 meters between the lagoon and the ocean. Here is where the Americans built the airstrip during Word War II. And in this area you will also find what must be called the capital. It consists of a couple of road crossings, around which are situated the meetinghouse, maneapa, the bank, the police station and the radio studio. The new, big government building - three stories, tallest in the nation - is next to the somewhat worn but friendly hotel, both financed by Taiwan.

It is very peaceful, but there have been profound changes since my last visit some ten years ago. There is asphalt on both the landing strip and the roads; there are road lights and a lot more cars and motorcycles. Now, you will have to go to the darkness at the ocean side to be able to fully appreciate the breath- taking myriads of stars in the night sky. On my first visit in the early 80’s, the nations first telephones were installed. Now, I go to the Internet café to check my e-mail.

Satellite communication and Internet is a revolution for these isolated islands. But the new technology has also meant a new era in economic terms. Tuvalu was given the Internet domain address ".tv" and that address is so popular that the licence fees are covering a large part of the national budget.

Tuvalu also spends considerable sums on keeping an ambassador to the United Nations in New York. His name is Enele Sopoaga, and he is expected to make known to the rest of the world what alarming threats that microstates like Tuvalu are facing due to climate change. The Alliance of Small Island States - an organisation within the framework of the UN - demands that those who are emitting greenhouse gases on a large scale also should take their obligations seriously.

The United States is the greatest overall polluter, while on a per capita basis Australia comes first. With the quick industrial development in nations like China and India, the rise of emissions may be overwhelming in the future and make agreements such as the Kyoto protocol seem futile.

"Climate change is the major question," says Ambassador Sopoaga when I reach him on the phone in New York. "That problem makes all other development issues meaningless."

He adds that on Funafuti, though, garbage disposal is currently the most acute problem. And that is true: due to increasing imports, extensive parts of the island have been transformed into waste dumps, where cans, plastic bottles, wrecked cars and broken copy machines are slowly deteriorating in the salty air. The influx to Funafuti of people from other islands in Tuvalu has created overpopulation and growing sanitation problems.

The airstrip is used as a football field and is a popular place for an evening stroll. Beside the runway, water is forced out of the ground creating puddles that are quickly growing into murky ponds. Dennis Byrne, an Australian consultant working on an aid project for water supply and sanitation, goes there to take samples to estimate the salinity of the water.

He explains that at high tide, ocean water is pushed into the porous limestone base of the island, whereupon the tiny lens of sweet water is pressed out of the ground. That is a phenomenon that always has occurred before, the difference these days is that it happens more often and is much more forceful.

Close by is the meteorological station, where the chief official Tuala Katea says that the water at the most recent high tide came right up to his door.

"I think the ocean is rising," says Tuala Katea. "And before, we had two or three cyclones per year; nowadays there are at least five. The climate has become unpredictable."

He thinks that the inhabitants of Tuvalu eventually will have to move away, but what will then happen to their identity? Islanders often have more profound sentiments for their land than people do in larger countries.

During the extremely high springtide in February 2004, large parts of Funafuti were flooded. In news reports all over the world, it was stated that all of the islands of Tuvalu were on the verge of being submerged, and that "convoys of refugees" were on their way to New Zealand. These were exaggerations which increased interest in environmental problems, but the presence of foreign journalists in Funafuti - asking questions about what people think about their homeland being devoured by the ocean - has probably spurred the fear among the islanders.

"In the Internet era, it only takes an ill- informed journalist in Melbourne to get a messed-up story distributed globally," says James Conway, coordinator for the European Unions aid projects in Tuvalu.

He has his office in the government building, a quite extensive complex for a nation of such minuscule dimensions. When Conway first came here, he thought he would last a few months at most, now he has been here for fifteen years and has married a Tuvaluan woman.

There are still uncertainties concerning the ocean level, he says. But if it is rising, it would require coastal barriers and reinforcements of an economically absolutely forbidding extent for Tuvalu.

At the Environment department, Enate Evi points out that there is no time to wait for firm proof of all environmental changes. People who live here clearly see the difference.

"Hurricanes have far greater consequences here than on bigger land masses," says Enate Evi. "We will have to adapt to the changing climate, but the question is what we actually can do."

Adaptation to changing climate patterns is a crucial question in all island states, but the limited resources for action is an overwhelming obstacle. And the erosion of coastlines, for instance, is worsened by islanders taking sand and gravel for building material; but it may prove difficult to persuade people to refrain from activities that are part of island life since generations back.

Prime Minister Maatia Toafa is a pleasant man, and he has the Bible, a laptop computer and the Taiwan Journal on his large desk. A major part of his work is to establish favourable contacts with donor countries. The Prime Minister promptly dismisses allegations that the government has heightened the pessimistic reports on climate change in order to make donors less tight- fisted.

"We can see the changes, and we believe they are due to the greenhouse effect," he says. "And the government has to take action; we have to have a plan."

On the reports on "convoys" of environmental refugees, Prime Minister Toafa says that it wasn’t quite correct, but that Tuvalu is encouraging emigration to ease the pressure from over-population and lack of jobs in Funafuti. An agreement with New Zealand guarantees Tuvaluans permanent residence permits in that country provided they find employment.

"No, an evacuation of the entire population has not been on the agenda," the Prime Minister says. "We have had negotiations about buying land in New Zealand and Australia, but what will happen to our culture if we were to move there?"

When we leave Funafuti, the pilot makes an extra run over the vast lagoon. From the air, the atoll is a gem, a jewel in the immense void of the ocean, an invitingly blue oasis in this water world. It is populated by a friendly people for whom the Pacific is both their amniotic fluid and a deadly threat.

The question is if there will be anything at all to see here for someone crossing the Pacific at the turn of the century.

Anders Mathlein is a freelance journalist and author of two books on the Pacific islands who lives in Stockholm, Sweden. This article originally appeared in September in the Swedish magazine Dagens Arbete.

December 1, 2005

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