Scenes From an Island Nation Facing Its Own Demise

By Amelia Holowaty Krales

Tuvalu, the island nation in the South Pacific, will be uninhabitable within 50 years because of climate change. How are its 11,000 inhabitants dealing with the rising seas?

TUVALU -- A 40 minute boat ride across the lagoon from Funafuti's capital islet, there is a beautiful beach circling the islet of Tebuka. The shore is crisscrossed with tall trunks of downed coconut trees, their roots exposed. The day I navigated the debris along the beach, it was dramatic how erosion had uprooted hundreds of trees.

Tuvalu is a string of nine small islands in the middle of the South Pacific, about halfway between Australia and Hawaii. About 11,000 people live on the atolls' collective ten square miles. The global scientific community predicts that Tuvalu will be uninhabitable within 50 years because of climate change.

Climate change is most visible in Tuvalu during the King Tide, a season characterized by the strongest and highest tides of the year, during the new and full moon of February. During these tides, the water bubbles up through the porous ground and pools across the low-lying islands, causing flooding throughout the country. Before the mid-90s, flooding was never as pervasive, even at the peak of the King Tide. But recently, alterations in traditional seasonal weather patterns -- most notably, alternating drought and extreme weather events -- have caused flooding to become a serious annual problem.

During the King Tide, childhood development educator Teimana Avanitele showed me around her flooded backyard and garden. Her backyard is deluged constantly during high tide, not just in February. The Avanitele family home is located on what used to be swampland, filled in by American soldiers during WWII when the local runway was built. The flooding creates septic problems, and many times has destroyed Avanitele's vegetable garden, forcing her to construct raised beds above the reach of the water.

I saw flooding throughout the capital island of Funafuti, where I lived for ten months, working on a photographic documentary investigating how climate change has affected everyday life in Tuvalu.

I spoke with parents about their hopes for their children, young people about their future plans, fishermen and farmers about changes in their catches and crops. Elders in the community shared their observations about changes they have seen in the land and weather patterns.

"The weather, climate ... are not stable like before," observed Ioane Malologa, 64. "One time, I am living along the seashore, my house is there and the wave came up, right up to the house. And even ... buildings built with concrete were washed down or damaged by that big wave." Malologa, along with 11 other dancers, singers, and musicians, will represent Tuvalu in "Water is Rising," a show now touring the United States, raising awareness about the issues facing Tuvalu. "I have already advised my children. I got four daughters and one only son. ... They've been well educated, and now they all got jobs in the government. Well that'd be okay for their life at the moment but ... I have advised them -- it is better to migrate."

This sentiment is not held by all. Though encouraging his children to migrate, Malologa himself wants to stay in Tuvalu. While most Tuvaluans have family living abroad, largely in New Zealand and Fiji, many people I met there wanted to stay in Tuvalu as long as possible. But in a country where land is precious and scarce, coastal erosion, flooding, and increasingly severe weather patterns, eking out a living here is now difficult.

Family is of primary importance in Tuvalu, and when asked about his family's future and the possibility of migration because of climate change or other forces, Funafuti resident Pesega Lifuka, responded, "People have to survive, right? They have to change; they have to find resources for survival. That is what you can see - [in] my family, I really invest in education. Maybe that is the only land that we have. It is through knowledge then we can survive. Hopefully, if there is a change in Tuvalu I think that it is better to have this."

He continued, "As a Tuvaluan or maybe as a Pacific Islander, there is an old saying: where you grow up that is your identity."

Though Tuvalu and other low laying atolls are some of the first countries to experience these issues at this scale, they are a canary in the mine. All countries will begin to experience the effects of climate change if measures aren't taken to lower emissions, and real attempts taken to slow the effects already taking place.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/11/scenes-from-an-island-nation-facing-its-own-demise/247912/