The higher tides brought by global warming threaten to make low-lying island nations such as Tuvalu literally disappear from the map.
Global warming gives Pacific islanders a sinking feeling
NEW YORK // Boasting swaying coconut palms and azure shores, Tuvalu's nine sun-soaked coral islands resemble a castaway's idyll, situated in the expansive waters of the Pacific Ocean midway between Australia and Hawaii. But there is trouble in paradise. Rising tides that are being blamed on climate change and the melting of polar ice, mean this low-lying archipelago, barely five metres above sea level at its highest point, could become the world's first national casualty of global warming.
As islanders battle the encroaching seas, Tuvaluan politicians have aligned with counterparts in other low-lying island nations, likening themselves to the "canary in the coal mine" - a harbinger of the environmental chaos facing mankind. However, requests for international cash assistance to build sea walls and other defences remain unanswered, and the world's biggest polluters have failed to agree on slashing greenhouse gas emissions.
Fanny Héros, who works for an assistance project called Alfo Tuvalu, meaning "Love Tuvalu" in the local tongue, says: "This would be the first time that mankind as a whole would be responsible for the loss of a nation. "A nation like Tuvalu has its own language, its own way of life. If you just take the handicrafts as an example - each island has its own unique way of producing crafts, with only a small number of people weaving fans and threading necklaces in their own way. When you get to know those people it just becomes unacceptable to think that all this could be lost."
Some 12,000 Tuvaluans across a 26-sq-km area have watched tides creep higher, flooding homes and roads so frequently now that some fear the islands could become uninhabitable within decades. Planners hope to build sea defences with international donations before devising a strategy for nation-wide evacuation - a taboo topic among the country's population. Lotoala Metia, Tuvalu's minister of finance and economic planning, said: "We will not even consider migration and relocation of the people of Tuvalu."
Scientific predictions on the impact of climate remain contentious - but the bottom line for Tuvaluans is that an anticipated sea level rise of about 1 metre by the end of this century would make island life close to impossible. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports sea levels rising by 1.8mm per year from 1961 to 2003 and accelerating to 3.1mm per year from 1993 to 2003. Further increases will "exacerbate inundation, storm surge, erosion and other coastal hazards, thus threatening ? island communities", the UN-formed panel said in a report.
Other scientific reports, however, are not quite so apocalyptic. A study by the University of Hawaii in 2000 reported a sea-level rise of only 0.07mm a year over the preceding two decades at Tuvalu, while the University of Tasmania calculated the rise at being 1.2mm a year. Recent flooding, say other experts, could be the result of land erosion caused by cyclones in the late 1990s. The UN's International Organisation for Migration describes "no reliable estimates" for climate change refugees, but predicts that deluged islanders could number among some 200 million forced from their homes by global warming.
A diplomatic grouping, the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), has called on the world's industrialised nations to slash carbon emissions and limit "global average temperature increases to well below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels". Negotiations on a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol held in Copenhagen in December failed to yield consensus, leaving AOSIS members hoping for legally binding targets set at a climate change meeting to take place in Cancun, Mexico, at the end of the year.
Collin Beck, ambassador of the Solomon Islands to the UN, said: "The window for correcting the issue is fast closing - we are approaching a stage where it will be irreversible. These are the beginnings of things that are worse to come. We are on the front lines ? what is happening to us now will happen to others." Mr Beck said inhabitants of the South Pacific group of islands are "dealing with disasters on an ongoing basis", with residents of low-lying areas forced to seek higher ground and often compete with rival ethnic groups for land and dwindling natural resources.
Seeking to lead by example, Alfo Tuvalu is training locals to harness power from coconut bio-diesel and pig waste, demonstrating to carbon-emitters, such as the US and China, "what the country is doing at its own, tiny level in the fight against climate change", Ms Héros said. In the Maldives, an archipelago of more than 1,000 low-lying Indian Ocean islets, officials similarly plan to become "carbon-neutral within 10 years", said Amjad Abdulla, director general of the ministry of housing, transport and environment.
Engineers have reclaimed land from the sea adjoining the main island, Malé, and Mr Abdulla described plans for habitable "floating islands" to replace submerged atolls. Some schemes involve the specialist firm, Dutch Docklands, which worked on parts of Dubai's man-made archipelago, The World. "If you ask any of our citizens about migration, relocation from their nation, you would hear the same answer: none of us ever want to relocate from where we belong," Mr Abdulla said. "This is not a situation we have created, but we are the frontline states."
Asserting their diplomatic clout, AOSIS members successfully pushed last year for a UN General Assembly resolution calling for intensified focus on climate change threats, with Mr Beck now calling for the UN "Security Council to take a stronger role". But for the leaders of low-lying island states, it remains unclear whether their diplomatic manoeuvres will be enough. "We should not allow some countries to sink for the progress of others," Mr Beck said.