People of Tuvalu face uphill battle

By Angela Gregory

Among heavy downpours and the elevating hymns of a Sunday afternoon in Tuvalu's capital of Funafuti, an English scientist and a French documentary maker hand out packets of seeds and tell women how they can grow vegetables.

It is a deceptively simple scene, but the underlying motives are far removed from the gentle art of gardening.

Dr Sarah Hemstock and Gilliane Le Gallic are desperate that the people of Tuvalu wake up to the part they can play in protecting their future.

Le Gallic spells it out. She tells the group of mainly women, who have broken off from their singing to listen, how everyone has to work together to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere.

"As it says in the Bible, if you help yourself God will help you and others will too."

Le Gallic explains how their mixing of inorganic and organic rubbish in island tips creates dangerous gases that harm the atmosphere.

She wants to encourage them to separate the rubbish, and use the organic wastes to make compost and grow vegetables on the coral atolls that make up the Tuvalu group.

The home-grown food will in turn reduce the amount of imported food and cut down on waste.

Le Gallic first came to Tuvalu about two years ago to make her award-winning documentary Trouble in Paradise with American co-director Christopher Horner.

They had heard about the watery fate of the country if sea-rise predictions came true.

Submerged

Tuvalu is picked to be the first nation to be submerged. This will create environmental refugees - many of whom will come to New Zealand.

Le Gallic is so moved by the people and their plight, she now works with dedicated French aid agency Alofa Tuvalu to encourage local responses for sustainable development like renewable energy projects.

She is critical of others who "just want to make money out of them like TV but not help them face this issue."

Le Gallic is referring to a Californian communication company which bought Tuvalu's internet domain name for US$40 million ($57 million). Of the windfall, US$10 million ($14 million) was used to tarmac the island's 19km of roads, which reduced vegetation and encouraged the importation of vehicles.

Hemstock, a specialist in renewable energy and climate change, contracts to Alofa Tuvalu on its "small is beautiful" project. She advises the women how to grow vegetables in tubs. The ground is increasingly unsuitable because of increased salinity from the rising sea level.

Hemstock also promotes the development of bio-gas production from piggeries. On a small scale it can be used for daily cooking but on a larger scale can be harnessed for power generation.

She says energy or food account for 80 per cent of Tuvalu's imports.

But the two women's earnest self-help messages can ring a little shallow, not so much redolent of changing the deck chairs on the Titanic but rearranging the seating on a wobbly canoe mid-ocean.

Hemstock argues, however, such steps are necessary insurance for Tuvalu, the fourth smallest country in the world by land area (26sq km) and one of the least populated. About 10,000 people live only a few metres above sea level on Tuvalu's nine atolls or coral islands, half of them on Funafuti atoll, where increasingly intrusive tides and storm surges are a growing problem.

Tuvalu needs to follow good practice to forcefully argue for compensation when the worst occurs - and she believes it will.

"By doing all they can and using renewable technologies in a sustainable process they have a good chance to fight their corner ... get the developed countries to foot the blame and the bill."

But there is still fierce debate about both the causes and the speed of sea-level rise and, for its own sake, Tuvalu has much work to do to raise its environmental performance.

Hemstock says evidence for climate change and rising sea-levels is irrefutable.

"Those who still say it does not exist are regarded like flat-earthers."

Hers is a worst-case scenario - an abrupt and devastating climate change probably in 10 to 50 years.Tuvalu is the most vulnerable ocean- framed nation, with its highest land point reaching just 4.6m above sea level. And the evidence of rising seas is already at hand, she says. While king tides have always invaded the land there is now more unexpected flooding as the sea water under the atoll creeps closer to the surface.

The Government of Tuvalu is taking the issue seriously. About three years ago it contemplated suing the United States for failing to adhere to the Kyoto protocols on carbon dioxide reductions, and a Tuvalu delegation to the United Nations reported many people were already migrating to escape the rising sea.

In 2000, Tuvalu appealed to Australia and New Zealand to accept its people as refugees in an emergency.

Last month, Tuvalu's ambassador to the UN, Enele Sopoaga, told a conference in the US that rising ocean levels were slowly but steadily doing what a major cyclone did in hours. Sopoaga says if the severe storm seasons, which are also linked to global warming, sent a Hurricane Katrina or Rita their way the nation would be destroyed.

After seeing pictures of Katrina's damage, Sopoaga said: "If that ever happened to Tuvalu, my country would be disappeared, totally, from the face of the planet."

At the Vermont conference on how the "age of climate crisis" affects indigenous cultures, he said the impact was already being felt.

Tuvalu shares its fears with 42 other members of the Alliance of Small Island States, Sopoaga says.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that in 50 to 100 years, melting Arctic ice could raise ocean levels above the highest points on Tuvalu.

"The situation is not exaggerated at all. It's getting very, very serious."

Run-down

Back on Fongafale Island in the Funafuti atoll there are moves to get on and face the situation as best as possible. In a run-down, one-level former government building on the edge of Te Namo lagoon, Poni Faavae is developing a national adaptation programme of action (Napa) for Tuvalu on how to face climate change. Faavae has worked for 18 months on the programme, which he will submit to a UN programme for least-developed countries.

He already sees how the problems have to be tackled collectively, bundling together sectors such as water, agriculture, health and food security and biodiversity. "They interlink; there is a synergy between them."

For example as sea levels rise the groundwater turns saltier and traditional crops such as giant taro, which are planted close to the water table, begin to die. Faavae wants to see if more salt-tolerant species, like those grown in Palau, could be introduced to Tuvalu.

Faavae says the groundwater is not even usable for household activities.

"Actually it is banned because it is polluted - septic tank standards vary and many are not working properly."

A truck is needed to collect waste to take it to where it can be properly treated, he says.

The semi-saline water is fit only to wash out the pig pens built around "borrow pits" dug out by the Americans during World War II to mine coral for a runway. The pits have filled with water, sometimes flooding. Their high metallic content - possibly from buried war material, including anti-aircraft missiles - raises concern the metals will be passed on to humans through the food chain.

There are no rivers or streams on Tuvalu, so its people depend on rain water and ideally need to increase storage capacity to sustain a three-month drought. Most household systems fail that target so the Government is trying to introduce water-conservation principles.

Waste is piling up on the atolls and with warmer weather, Faavae says there is risk of increased infection and disease.

At least people are starting to see the benefit of recycling waste with a central composting site, he notes. "When it started about five years ago no one was interested. Now even those from outer islands come to see what's happening."

He says there is also a need to better understand the climate so locals can respond earlier to high-risk events such as cyclones.

Tuvalu's location at eight degrees latitude south of the equator and to the west of other Polynesian nations affords it some protection from the worst of cyclonic weather. The cyclones tend to brew near Tuvalu and gather intensity as they move east and south.

But Faavae says the country has had its knocks, as in 1972 when Cyclone Bebe destroyed all the houses on Funafuti.

About three years ago a huge storm wave swamped about 10 per cent of the land in half a metre of water, he says.

"People were scared; it covered part of the populated area."

Such events are only going to get worse with global warming, he says. There are plans to develop a building code and he sees "practically no other option" but the construction of expensive sea walls on some sites.

Faavae is in no doubt the sea level is rising "because we have evidence you can see". He has noticed changes in coral reef fish; which sort you can catch and where.

He also points out how a maritime school on Amatuku islet, 12km north of Fongafale Island, built by the church as a school in 1904, is swamped in king tides by shin-deep water.

"There's no need to panic but we have to plan ahead."

Captain Jonathan Gayton, superintendent of the Tuvalu Maritime Training Institute, says he has seen sea water over the floor of the school house only once in the 2 1/2 years he has worked there. But the surrounding area floods regularly, which raises the question: why would it have been built there if the area flooded a century ago?

"It comes up through the coral like watching a puddle evaporate in reverse."

Then, typical of the confusion sur rounding global warming, especially that based on anecdotal evidence, he adds: "But the reef between Amatuku and the island north demonstrates coral formations which are now dead because it has been exposed at low tide - so I can show evidence of both the sea level rising and the sea level falling."

The fuss over insidiously rising sea levels can appear faintly ridiculous as one travels Fongafale's 12km main road. From the air the Funafuti atoll is picture perfect, the long, slender islands circling each other like a ring of sea snakes dipping in and out of an inky blue ocean and aqua-trimmed atoll.

Ribbons of land

On land the ribbons of land are, at widest, about the width of a block of Queen St but can narrow to the width of a road. Many houses are elevated to protect them from flooding, wild sea surges or to extend the scarce supply of inhabitable land by building over borrow pits.

But the most startling images are the piles of domestic rubbish heaped between and even under homes, and the abandoned cars, trucks, buses and heavy equipment along the roadside even on the edge of the clear lagoon. These include areas where children play and rats will scuttle from one rubbish heap to another in broad daylight.

Susan Tupulaga, Tuvalu's waste management co-ordinator, despairs at the difficulty in managing waste. There are official landfills but they lack proper equipment to collect and manage rubbish, so people just dump it where they can.

"We had to close off the northern end of the road to stop people illegally dumping rubbish on it."

Tupulaga says the Government lacks an imports-control system and shopkeepers can order whatever they want. Only aluminium cans are shipped offshore for recycling. There are many cars relative to the few roads, and motorcycles are also popular. "We need to think about cars and whether we could impose a tax to cover the cost of future disposal."

With increased materialism has come whiteware, computers, printers and the like, which will eventually be dumped.

Other concerns include beachhead erosion because of the use of sand for aggregate and excessive clearance of undergrowth for fuel.

Down by the wharf, police recruit Siose Fagatoa floats on his back in the late afternoon sun before starting his evening shift and says he is committed to Tuvalu whatever its future. He is another local to see evidence of sea rising, as in the outer islands where he worked in recent years.

"Once quarterly storms are now coming every one or two months."

Fagatoa says some Tuvalu people are so concerned they have packed up and left for New Zealand.

Fisherman Salili Tagata, from Niutao island, is more pessimistic and sees the same coastal erosion problems there as on Fongafale.

"It's all down to the rising sea level - we need to reduce global warming and save something. If it keeps on going, the outcome is very bad; it will damage everything, will ruin everything."

What used to be a sandy beach north of the wharf is now stony foreshore below the hotel where a retaining wall has been built. In front of it is a tidal gauge installed by Australia's National Tidal Centre in 1993 to measure sea-level rises averaging 4.9mm a year, compared with a global average of 1mm to 2mm a year.

Early measurements indicated an enormous rise, but the 1997-98 El Nino then saw a fall 35cm below average and the trend remained negative for three years. Since early 2002, it has been slowly but steadily rising (see graph above).

The centre says it's too early to deduce a long-term trend (or even whether it will be positive or negative) from this data.

Further down the lagoon young mother Ritia Smoliner's emotional gauge fluctuates from worry that she will lose her home perched over the beach to shrugging off anxiety and enjoying life one day at a time.

On the wild east coast, police officer Tipelu Kauani lives with his family in a rented government building behind a naturally formed bank of shattered coral.

"We're getting used to living by the sea. The waves sometimes reach the top of the bank. I've heard of the sea level rising and it's a big worry ... where the winds come from are changing."

Local journalist Silfaga Lalua says Tuvaluans are increasingly talking about sea-level rises although there are local sceptics who do not believe the scientists.

"But the general feeling of people is negative; they do realise something is happening."

The locals celebrated when the Kyoto Protocol came into effect on February 16, and broke off into discussion groups about their future. Lalua says while most people do not want to be relocated, many she knows have migration on the agenda. "There are two reasons they want to go - a better education for their children and fear of being washed away."

The tsunami in the Indian Ocean last year heightened her sense of Tuvalu's fragility. "I am scared that one day it will happen to us and we won't be ready. We will all end up washed into the lagoon.

"There is talk of equipping people with inflatable liferafts and survival packs."

* Angela Gregory's visit was sponsored by the Pacific Co-operation Foundation - ph (04) 9319380 or use the links below.

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