Published On: Sun, Mar 10th, 2024

Inside the world’s smallest island struggling to stay above water | World | News

The camera is zoomed in on a suited and booted Simon Kofe, Tuvalu’s foreign minister, as he addresses COP26 from his country.

“We must take action today to secure tomorrow,” he says, as the shot slowly pans out and reveals that he is standing thigh-high in ocean water.

It is not hyperbole: Tuvalu, the tiny island nation in Oceania, is being swollowed by the sea at an alarming rate.

In some places, the water line is rising by almost 4mm per year, which may sound like a small amount, but the islanders feel every bit of it.

Tuvalu is at a crossroads, and although it is fast adapting to its new reality, some now warn that swathes of the island could cease to exist by 2100.

Tuvalu is one of the world’s most beautiful countries, steeped in culture and tradition, much of which has remained the same for hundreds of years.

Islanders talk on social media of traditions like fishing being passed down through the generations, though stress the fact that many of these customs are fast disappearing.

Lily Teafa recalled how growing up on the island consisted of fishing every day and enjoying big catches to share with the neighbours.

Things are different now, however.

She told the Guardian: “Whenever we go for a picnic, especially at the northern and southern ends of this beautiful island, we always notice that a piece of land has been washed away by the sea.”

Tuvalu is expected to be one of the world’s first countries to be completely lost to climate change.

Some estimates say 50 percent of the island’s capital, Funafuti, will be flooded by 2050. Other predictive models say 95 percent of the settlement will regularly succumb to waters by the end of the century.

Floodwaters are complicated. Not only do they destroy homes and infrastructure, but crops and animals, too.

The rising salt water table could destroy deep-rooted crops that Tuvaluans rely on, things such as coconut, pulaka, and taro. Even if these things escape the flooding, their roots will have long perished.

Just three coral islands and six atolls make up the nation with a total land mass of less than 26 sq km, with the narrowest point at Fongafale stretching just 20m across.

Already, two of these islands are on the verge of going under, at risk of being swallowed by the sea and pounded by coastal erosion.

The threats are compounded by the island’s population. While countries around the world are facing negative population growth, Tuvalu has seen an explosion in growth since 1950, its population expanding from 4,732 to 11,478.

However, many are now facing perhaps the biggest decision of their lives: to flee or to remain.

In November 2023, Australia offered 280 Tuvaluans per year the opportunity to live, study and work in the country as part of a new treaty.

While many on the island have welcomed it, questions over Tuvalu’s most vulnerable potentially being left behind have been raised.

As things stand, around a twelfth of Tuvalu’s population has already relocated. Most travel to nearby New Zealand under the Pacific Access Category, which allows 150 citizens to be granted residence in the country every year, but many will now also look to Australia.

The Tuvalu Government has deployed some successful land reclamation programmes to counter the rising water level.

With support from the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the Green Climate Fund, and the Government of Australia, the Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project (TCAP) drains areas near the coast to protect them from heavy rainfall. It also places so-called ‘mega-bags which will block waters and remain intact for over 40 years.

The main reclamation efforts have taken place around the capital, but work is already starting at other stretches of the island.

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