“Tuvalu is sinking,” Finance Minister Seve Paeniu declares of his island nation during an interview with Yahoo News at the United Nations Climate Change Conference.
Tuvalu, a South Pacific atoll with a population of just over 11,000 people, is an idyllic South Pacific atoll made up of nine low-lying islands with a maximum elevation of about 15 feet. Because of sea level rise, that elevation shrinks a little more each year.
“We are now experiencing climate change in Tuvalu, and we are seeing land disappearing at an alarming rate,” says Paeniu, who has a bald head and a piercing gaze. “That’s why we’re here at COP26,” he says of the climate summit, “to tell our story to the rest of the world.” The world must act now, rather than postponing it until later.”
Paeniu, 56, has witnessed firsthand how rising sea levels are eroding his homeland.
“There’s a flood. Water is just infiltrating the water links beneath the land, and places where water does not normally come through are now all flooded. There are storm surges when cyclones come and wash across the entire land. “That has never happened before,” Paeniu says.
Tuvaluans must collect rain for drinking water or import diesel desalination plants because there are no rivers or wells for fresh water. The latter solution is costly. Agriculture has become more precarious as the ocean waters have advanced, and once-abundant fishing has also begun to decline.
To make matters worse, tropical cyclones are becoming more powerful as land and ocean temperatures rise, putting Tuvalu and other island nations at risk.
Among the many threats that climate change poses to humanity, those faced by island nations are perhaps the most easily comprehended. They are also among the most pressing. “In this situation, islands are the canary in the coal mine,” former President Barack Obama said in a speech at COP26 on Monday. “They’re sending a message now that if we don’t act quickly — and boldly — it will be too late.”
Obama had attended a session on island resilience and met with representatives from Fiji, the Marshall Islands, and Grenada prior to his remarks. Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister, Simon Kofe, delivered a message to the conference while standing knee-deep in sea water, to better illustrate the threat his country faces.
While Paeniu claims that Tuvaluans do not want to leave their homeland, it has become a common topic of discussion in recent years.
“The Tuvaluan government does not actively encourage people to migrate — that is a very clear policy direction.” “However, the government is facilitating and providing opportunities for people who have chosen to leave Tuvalu due to the effects of climate change,” he says. “There are worker schemes, migrant worker schemes, with Australia and New Zealand, where our people could work on short-term contracts.” We are working on an initiative that will eventually be brought up within the United Nations system in which, if everything fails and Tuvalu becomes uninhabitable, there will be nowhere to go, so we will have to relocate.”
Scientist Benjamin Strauss told “The Climate Crisis Podcast” that due to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that humans have added to the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the planet is almost certain to see a 5 foot rise in sea level in the coming decades.
If that prediction comes true, Tuvalu as we know it will come to an end.
“We know that even if we meet the 1.5 [degree Celsius] target at this COP, it will not prevent Tuvalu’s land from disappearing or sinking,” Paeniu says. “So our main message is for countries to come to our aid and keep us from being submerged.” For this, we would like to embark on a large-scale, raised land reclamation program.”
That means following in the footsteps of the Maldives and China, which have begun pumping massive amounts of sand on top of coral reefs in order to reverse the assault of sea level rise on island outposts.
It’s unclear whether Tuvalu will be able to persuade wealthy nations to contribute to the effort to save it from the advancing ocean. But there’s no denying that there’s a strong bond between its people and what’s left of the atoll.