Catastrophe laps at doorway of low-lying Pacific nation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 March, 2006, 12:00am

As deputy prime minister of the South Pacific nation of Tuvalu, Saufatu Sopoanga has first-hand experience of the threat to his homeland posed by rising sea levels.

'I had a big pile of coconuts at the end of my garden and the sea washed half of them away,' he said from his first floor office overlooking a turquoise lagoon framed by palm trees. 'We were going to cook with them and press them for oil. Now they're gone.'

The minister is not the only one to have suffered a loss from the encroaching sea. Early this month Tuvalu's 10,000 inhabitants were shocked when a record king tide caused waves to sweep over beaches and saltwater to bubble up through the ground, flooding large areas and killing crops. 'I had to evacuate my pigs because the water came up to their necks,' one islander said, while others gave accounts of catching fish in waterlogged back gardens.

Tuvalu's geography puts it at grave risk from the sea level rises which most scientists say will be an inevitable consequence of climate change. The tiny atoll nation is on the front line of a global trend which will affect Asia and the rest of the world.

'It's not just us in trouble,' said Mr Sopoanga. 'Coastal areas of big countries in Asia will also be affected. It's worse for us because we are low lying and in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with nowhere to run to.' Islanders say the crisis facing Tuvalu, and the devastation caused to the southern US by Hurricane Katrina, should be a wake-up call to the entire planet.

'Localities as diverse as Venice and the Ganges river delta in South Asia, home to some 60 million people, might partly disappear or vanish without a trace,' a former prime minister, Faimalaga Luka, warned.

Not only is Tuvalu's highest point just five metres above sea level, only two of its nine inhabited islands and atolls are larger than London's Hampstead Heath or New York's Central Park. The country's total land area is just 26sqkm.

Nearly every inch of the main atoll, Funafuti, is crowded with pastel-coloured wooden houses, tiny vegetable gardens and pig pens. It's so cramped that football and cricket have to be played on the runway which has cut a swathe across the island since it was built by the US military in the second world war.

Although scientists say global sea levels are rising by only 5mm a year at present, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted a rise of up to 88cm by the end of the century.

If that happens, Tuvalu could become the first country in the world to be lost to the ocean - a modern-day Atlantis.

As six Tuvaluan athletes take part in the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne this week, there are fears that Tuvalu and at least two other former British colonies could be absent from future competitions. 'No one is sure about the time scale - it could happen in the next decade or the next century,' said Dr Clive Hamilton, executive director of the Australia Institute, a policy think-tank.

'But we face the real prospect of losing three nations - Tuvalu, neighbouring Kiribati and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Perhaps there'll be people carrying banners at future Commonwealth Games in memory of the countries which have disappeared beneath the waves.'

At first sight, Tuvalu, which until independence in 1978 was one half of Britain's Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony, fits the popular image of a South Seas paradise.

Policemen in smart blue shirts and shorts walk the street barefoot, children splash in the lagoon, fishermen haul in fresh tuna and afternoons are spent smoking, drinking sour toddy and napping.

But while Tuvaluans seem laid-back and relaxed, there's growing anxiety about what the future may hold. 'Some people are asking what is the point in staying here,' said Enate Evi, head of the environment department. 'The crops that we've depended on for thousands of years are being poisoned by the saltwater.'

So serious is the situation that Tuvalu's tiny government is increasing efforts to find a new home for its people should the worst happen. One offer has been received from Niue, another microstate in the South Pacific, but it, too, has its problems - two years ago it was devastated by a cyclone. A remote island in Fiji has been mentioned as another possible refuge, but the Fijian government has shown little enthusiasm for the idea. Better than either of these, says the deputy prime minister, would be an uninhabited island off the coast of Australia, possibly in the Torres Strait in northern Queensland.

'There are a couple which are bigger than Tuvalu, they are hilly and the climate is similar to ours,' Mr Sopoanga said. 'If Australia gave us an island we could keep all our people together and retain our traditions and culture.'

Such a prospect seems remote given Canberra's hardline stance on asylum-seekers. In any case, many islanders view resettlement with dismay. 'There would be culture shock, people would take years to adapt,' said Tauala Katea, the head of the meteorological service, who, like many islanders goes to work wearing a woven wreath of grass and frangipani flowers on his head. 'We would no longer be Tuvaluans, we'd be refugees.'

Environmental groups say Australia has a responsibility to the countries in its South Pacific backyard. It generates more greenhouse gases per capita than any other industrialised country and, like the US, has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

'We're facing the consequences of something which is not our fault,' said Sumeo Silu, Tuvalu's disaster co-ordinator. 'We want donors to give us the money to build sea walls to protect the islands.'

Already parts of the shoreline have receded and a tiny islet in Funafuti's picture postcard lagoon has been stripped of its soil and coconut palms. Even a modest rise in sea levels would have a huge impact - Funafuti is a slim ribbon of land, its narrowest point no wider than a two-lane highway.

'It was a shock to see the water reach so high during the king tide,' said electrician Fafili Taulealea, 43, pointing at a mark scratched on the wooden poles on which his house rests. 'I think Tuvalu will have to be evacuated. You can't stay in a place if it's sinking. It's either drown - or leave.'