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Extreme weather fuels climate debate

15 February 2013

Julia Edwards reports from Tuvalu


Severe: a gale on the coast of Funafuti

Severe: a gale on the coast of Funafuti

"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 island."

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 fully laden.

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 Organisation).

"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 Sautiale, said.

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 environmental challenges.

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 Christian Church.

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 accordingly."

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.

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