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Tuvalu: Water, water everywhere

Funafuti International Airport
Funafuti International Airport

FUNAFUTI, TUVALU (TR) – Few places around the globe can claim to be more isolated than the nine low-lying atolls and reefs that comprise the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu. On a map, the archipelago — distanced roughly halfway between Sydney and Honolulu — is small enough to be confused for specks of dust.

Tuvalu’s remoteness provides the stereotypical tropical paradise: glassy wave after glassy wave splashes upon its beaches and seasoned tuna steaks are cooked to order in the restaurant inside its only hotel. What may now be attractive to visitors, however, may also bring doom to this far-flung place. Some scientists believe rising sea levels resulting from climate change will eventually inundate this tiny Polynesian nation’s narrow landmasses of twisting palms and coral shores.

In Paris in the summer of 2007, researchers from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change became the latest to warn that a warming of the Earth is indeed taking place, citing human activity as a very likely cause. The condition will “continue for centuries,” the group added. Spend a few days on Fongafale — the largest of the group of isles that comprise the capital atoll of Funafuti — and you will soon realize that rising sea levels are but one threat that comes with an existence in the middle of a vast expanse of ocean.

On a recent Thursday at noon, the cramped departure lounge at Funafuti International Airport, Tuvalu’s only airstrip, has caused travelers, locals and foreigners alike, to spill out into the parking lot and the nearby community meeting hall. Peddlers are displaying their handmade wares as the passengers await the arrival of the Convair 580 prop plane.

Approximately 100 passengers a week have their passports stamped and bags scrutinized by the polite, blue-uniformed customs and immigration personnel. Domestic air services do not exist. Ships provide the only means for travel between the outer islands.

Fakaalofa Temate, a young woman sporting a Von Dutch T-shirt, hands a pink and brown woven hairpin to a potential customer. Hanging from a rafter within the meeting hall are necklaces of brown and white shells strung into the shapes of stars. With her mobile phone dangling from her neck, Temate says that today she has sold 14 necklaces at AUS$5.50 ($4.80) each. ‘But sometimes I can sell between 20 and 25,’ adds the native of the island of Nukufetau.

The tar-sealed — yet heavily patched — runway is at the ‘elbow’ of the arm-shaped Fongafale, which is home to roughly half of Tuvalu’s population of 11,992, and is the nation’s commercial center. The government building, which at three floors is probably the nation’s tallest feature, is behind the terminal; the 16-room Vaiaku Lagi Hotel, where most visitors stay, stands adjacent.

“A first siren signals a warning that the plane is due to arrive,” says the heavy-set Uinga Paelate, an assistant civil aviation officer, from the edge of the runway. ‘It is a chance for people to cross from one side of the runway to the other for their lunch break.”

Homes constructed of cinder blocks and plywood run the length of both sides of the airstrip’s 1,500 meters. Their corrugated roofs feed rainfall into concrete water storage tanks via pipes. Most dwellings have pig pens, their interiors a morass of mud and accommodating one or two grunting porkers. Fishing nets, which are much used during low tides, hang outside. Tall grasses and coconut and pine trees fill out Fongafale’s landscape, which from ocean to lagoon typically does not exceed a few hundred yards.

The air control tower is in a rickety hut that used to be a telecommunications office. Paelate points at the runway, which occupies one of the widest points in the country. ‘The pavement becomes spongy during the “king” tides that occur occasionally in February and March,’ he says – referring to the saltwater that percolates up through the atoll’s limestone base to form small ponds on the surface — the sighting of which many journalists have reported as initial signs of sea-level rise. ‘We’ll get calls during these times from Air Fiji prior to their takeoff from Suva inquiring about the runway’s condition.’

A short stroll to the north ends at the Meteorological Division. The walls within are filled with photos depicting flooding during the king tides. Labelled ‘High Tide’ and dated 9 March 2001, one image shows seven people in ankle-deep water just outside the building’s doors (one squatting gentleman is giving the peace sign). Other random shots display islanders maneuvering in small boats.

I ask one scientific officer within the Meteorological Division about the pictures. He tells me he cannot positively attribute the king tide events to be a result of sea-level rise. “Nearly the entire north end of the runway used to be a swamp,” he adds. “During World War II, the US military dug pits on both ends of the islet for fill material to be used to cover the bog for the construction of the runway. Aerial photographs from 1941 and 1943 clearly show that much of the area that is today runway pavement was then often under water naturally. Over the years, the fill has slowly compacted.”

Some researchers believe the ongoing erosion of Tuvalu’s shoreline is further evidence of climate change. Others, however, have countered that it is a natural process and that the collection of coral by homeowners for use as building materials has depleted protective barriers. Funafuti’s one operational tide gauge, which was installed in 1993, offers few distinct clues as to long-term sea-level trends. What is clear, according to a 2006 report issued by the South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project, is that El Nino storm events, the most recent of which occurred in 1997-98, have the greatest impact on monthly mean sea levels. At these times Tuvalu will see its lowest tides.

The debate over rising sea-level is set to continue, but there are more imminent threats to these islands. Over-population and increasing amounts of refuse are perhaps the most obvious to the visitor. Beer cans, rusted Ox & Palm corned beef tins, nappies and discarded plastic objects of uncertain origin can be found in piles along the edges of Fongafale’s streets. Those pits that were dug by the US military now serve as putrid garbage dumps, with homes packed around their edges. Recent years have seen large numbers of trees cleared from the islet’s northern tip to accommodate everything from discarded computer monitors to broken wheelchairs.

“Tuvaluan people should learn more about how to take care of their garbage,” says Eti Esela, a crewing superintendent for a marine company. The deeply tanned seaman talks about how environmental organisations are holding workshops, but adds that he believes they are not pushing the message sufficiently. “I hope public perceptions will change in the future,” he adds. The problem, maybe, is that life moves slowly on Tuvalu — perhaps slower than the climate is changing. Cars are rare, locals leisurely move around on bicycles and scooters. On days when there are no flights, the airstrip’s tarmac is used for touch rugby and other ball games. The fish shop seems to be closed more often than not, but in the early evenings fishermen roam Fongafale’s narrow streets looking for buyers of tuna caught earlier that day.

Such a seemingly simple existence contrasts with the strange way in which the nation generates income. Known as the Ellice Islands prior to independence from the UK in 1978, Tuvalu today receives the majority of its funding from the sale of international fishing licenses, the lease of its internet domain .tv, and interest generated from a multi-nation trust fund established in 1987. Most inhabitants make a meager living through subsistence farming and fishing, and hourly wages are extremely low — between AUS$1 (80 cents) and AUS$3 ($2.60) per hour.

It is not surprising, then, that Fongafale affords few dining options. Quite often the kitchen at the Vaiaku Lagi’s restaurant will run out of pan-fried tuna, whose price mysteriously fluctuates between AUS$5.70 ($5) and AUS$6.20 ($5.40) a portion. A breakfast of toast and coffee ranges from AUS$2 ($1.75) to AUS$3.20 ($2.80), seemingly dependent on the waitress on duty.

One of Fongafale’s half-dozen bars is situated within the hotel’s restaurant. A blend of locals and expats gather to drink Victoria Bitter beer (AUS$2.50 ($2.20) a can), to watch satellite television and to swap stories about life in the Pacific.

Sea-level rise is a common topic of conversation, especially for any new foreign government official or journalist checking in to the hotel. Like many locals, Esela, who is a regular in the evenings, does not subscribe to the theory that Tuvalu will one day be swamped.

But in contrast to the reasoning of most Tuvaluans, who are predominantly Christian and base their thinking on the Bible’s statement that there will not be another flood, Esela is more willing to hedge his bets. “We need to sit down and look at things,” he says. “What if it does happen? At least we should have some kind of plan on standby.”

Note: This report originally appeared in CNN Traveller in the January/February 2008 issue.