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Tuvalu - two metres above a rising sea level

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Dr David Corlett, Research Fellow at both Swinburne and La Trobe universities, is  the author of the book Stormy Weather: the challenge of climate change and displacement which explores environmental matters and social issues. One place where this is very evident is the Pacific nation of Tuvalu.    

Tuvalu, a small Pacific island nation 4,000 kilometres north-east of Sydney, consists of nine atolls that on average, are elevated at between one and two metres above sea level. This makes it very susceptible to rises in sea levels and brings the displacement of its 11,000 people as a real consequence of climate change. One of Dr Corlett’s interests has been to unravel the complex factors that affect the environment, not all of which are attributable to climate change.      
Clearly Tuvalu is under threat from rises in sea levels that accompany global warming. The Australian government has paid for a sea frame that monitors sea level rise but there is a caveat on findings so far as it has only been in operation since 1993. The latest report (2006) shows an annual rise of 5.7mm, well above the global estimate of 1 to 2mm.
Rumours that 3,000 Tuvaluans had already left because of climate change factors proved false but the very real prospect of an entire nation being displaced needs to be addressed not only by Pacific nations but by a global framework. There are estimates of 200-250 million people being displaced by climate change by 2050. That is the equivalent of Indonesia’s entire population being on the move, a notion which all governments need to address.
Another problem for Tuvalu is that sea water intrusion rots its root crops and that coastal erosion becomes more severe with higher high tides.

An example of the complex relationship between global and local environmental factors involved a coral replanting project. David reported that the marine biologist and a coastal management expert involved with the project found that after 15 months, most of the coral had died.    
On one hand, there was evidence of coral bleaching caused by rising sea temperatures. However, the researchers also found a large algal bloom attributable to local polluted run off, for example from tidal ponds that the community has used as dumps for its rubbish, that have become foul and even health hazards for locals who live close by.
This was not always the case, with some residents remembering the waters being pristine and places where families swam and picniced on the banks. Until recently, waste was from local produce and readily biodegradable. But now that Tuvalu interacts with the global economy, waste has become an issue. All the plastics, plastic bags and shrink wrapping and other (typically nonbiodegradable)rubbish have to go somewhere and Tuvalu does not have the capacity to transport (and hide) its waste like we do, so most of it is plainly visible on the atolls.
The tidal ponds look, and smell like filthy rubbish tips.


The government of Tuvalu does not have many resources and aid such as the Rudd government's donation to the entire Pacific region of $150 million over three years to address some of these problems, is inadequate to make large structural changes.    
To its credit the Tuvaluan government works with non-government organisations as well as being fully engaged with international forums. Some of its projects, such as mangrove planting have worked well. Others, such as the piggery pit waste being turned into biofuel, did not.
Tuvalu is like a microcosm of what may happen on a grander scale in the future. Dr Corlett argues that now is the time for us to look honestly and accurately at the social implications of climate change.
Humans have been very adaptable to all sorts of habitats, but when a place becomes uninhabitable by either dysfunctional ecosystems or extreme weather events, we need to have global strategies in place to cope with that displacement.

Images by David Corlett

Text: V.B. January 2009

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