"THERE's no petrol on
Funafuti," Afasene Pese, the Radio Tuvalu programme co-ordinator,
said. "Bad weather means there are no supplies anywhere on the
Deliveries of petrol
arrived offshore in the tiny central-Pacific nation of Tuvalu three
weeks ago, but unseasonal rough seas and strong winds prevented the
unloading of the cargo, and the tanker was forced to depart, still
Funafuti has been
particularly hard hit by the petrol shortage; most people rely on
petrol-powered scooters and motorcycles for transport. There are
very few diesel-operated cars, a sporadic bus service, and only two
flights a week from the airport. Island life, normally relaxed,
feels almost comatose.
Tuvalu, a low-lying atoll
nation with a population of 10,800, is used to making environmental
headlines. Frequently referred to as "sinking", and precariously
positioned on the front-line of climate change, the government of
Tuvalu made the international news in late 2011, when it declared a
state of emergency (
News, 25 November 2011).
A severe water shortage
was afflicting the eight-atoll chain (Tuvalu means "eight standing
together"). The 800 households that are crowded on Funafuti were
each allocated just 40 litres of water a day (less than half the
daily-consumption rate recommended by the World Health
"People bathed in the
sea, and some were forced to kill their pigs as there was no water.
It was not a good time," a resident of Funafuti, Talimoana Eurika
Fifteen months after the
drought, the water tanks are now full to overflowing, and Tuvalu,
located halfway between Australia and Hawaii, faces a new set of
Extreme and unusual
weather events are predicted to become more frequent, and more
severe, in the future, because of climate change. Most scientists
believe, however, that the greatest threat to low-lying-island
communities will come from rising sea-levels, caused by a
combination of the expansion of warmer oceans and the melting of
glaciers and ice sheets. Low-lying coastal areas in the Pacific and
elsewhere are already experiencing increased coastal erosion,
flooding, and salt-water inundation.
Tuvalu is particularly
susceptible to sea-level rise. Its highest point is less than five
metres above sea level, and most of the land area is just above the
high-tide mark. As sea levels in the region are predicted to rise
by as much as two metres by the end of this century, Tuvaluans face
the possibility of their island's disappearing under the waves.
The official government
stance on relocation is that it is something that needs to be
considered at a later stage. The Tuvaluan climate-change policy,
published last year, makes no reference to the term.
"I hate to say it, but we
have been labelled as climate-change refugees by some outside
agencies and academics," the Permanent Secretary of Foreign
Affairs, Tapugao Falefou, said. "We are not refugees. If we are to
be given a label, it should read 'Forced migrants'. There is
nowhere like home."
Relocation has also been
much talked about among the general population, 80 per cent of whom
are members of the Ekalesia Kelisiano Tuvalua (EKT), the Tuvaluan
The President of the EKT
Church, the Revd Semisi Nimo, said: "The government should give the
people of Tuvalu the choice of whether or not to relocate. . . The
challenge of climate change is priority for the Church. The people
need to be prepared."
The EKT climate-change
officer, Maina Talia, said: "I would never, never advocate
resettlement for now; we are too much linked to our land - but it
could be a second option. We need to pull together as a community,
and adapt to the changes."
Adaptation might be the
solution. Recent research has suggested that not all low-lying
atolls are at risk of inundation. The coastal geomorphologist Dr
Paul Kench, of the University of Auckland, said on one of his
regular field-visits to Tuvalu: "Islands will disappear in the
future. But some will grow, and others will change their profile.
People need to know which islands will do what, and adapt
In hoping for the best
and preparing for the worst, the people of Tuvalu demonstrate that
they are capable of'standing together to endure future
environmental challenge. But the question remains: where will they
have to stand to do this?
Dr Julia Edwards is a
mission partner with the Methodist Church in Britain, and is
serving with the Pacific Conference of Churches, and the Methodist
Church in Fiji and Rotuma.