Climate change and its impacts on a small island state: Tuvalu

Tuvalu from the air (photo courtesy of Dr.Julia Edwards)

This blog provides a front line report from Tuvalu, a small island state in the Pacific. Tuvalu is going through urbanization on a scale it has never experienced before, and is also struggling to adapt to the impacts of climate change. This remote and tiny place, so far removed from the global cities which are shaping its future, provides a laboratory specimen of the fate of a small island state in today’s world.

Small island states

I have written before about the development challenges that small island states are facing: see my blogs on Brunei and the Maldives. However, these small states are so often overlooked, and their problems are so immediate, that they bear repeating, though each country remains unique in its culture and circumstances. The trigger for writing about Tuvalu was the receipt of a newsletter from Julia Edwards,  based in a church project in Fiji, reporting on a recent visit to Tuvalu. Tuvalu is officially categorised as a Least Developed Country, but is paying a heavy price that has been imposed by the kind of development that much of the rest of the world takes for granted.

16 square miles, 10,600 people

Tuvalu is one of the world’s smallest states. Its land area amounts to only 16 square miles (26 square kms). Any country that size will have a very limited natural resource base and can ill afford to lose any of the land that it has. In Tuvalu’s case the land is scattered across  five coral atolls and four tiny reef islands. The land rarely reaches 3 metres above sea level.

The economic limitations are all too evident: a miniscule domestic market and a vast distance to cover to reach other places. Half-way between Australia and Hawaii, Fiji is roughly 500 miles away; Brisbane is over 2000 miles; Bali over 4000. Internal communication is also a problem. The islands are spread over 310,000 square miles (500,000 square km) of sea.

Rural poverty, urban growth

This has been a rural country, but now there is an “urban area”. Funafuti, the capital, is now home to around half the population of Tuvalu. Funafuti’s population increased by 40% between the censuses in 2002 and 2012. Speaking in 2010, the Minister for Home Affairs observed “The need to develop and manage urbanization is critical since Funafuti is increasingly transforming into an urban area and at present there is no proper institutional set up to coordinate develop and manage this transformation.”

Part of the growth of Funafuti is the result of people moving there in the hope of getting work. There is increasing poverty of opportunities for people in rural areas. Traditional subsistence agriculture is in decline as the economy has become more monetarised.

Tuvalu is a poor country: GDP per capita is around $5000 and a quarter of the people live below the national poverty line. Average household size in Funafuti is 7 persons, the highest in the country, indicating pressure on the housing stock. The density in the Funafuti is 1470 persons per square km. It is hard for incomers to get title to land. The urban growth is creating problems of waste disposal on the island.

A bizarre feature exacerbates the problems in Funafuti. Deep holes, known as ‘borrow pits’, run down the centre of the island. During World War II, American forces literally dug out large sections of the middle of the atoll, using the soil to build a military airstrip. Seventy years on, the ‘borrow pits’ still remain, in-filled with sea water and rubbish.

An innocent victim of climate change

Although Tuvalu has contributed an infinitesimal amount to global greenhouse gas emissions, it is very sensitive to extreme climatic events. In 2011 the government was forced to declare a state of emergence because of a drought, which was blamed on the La Niña weather pattern. When drought hits, small islands have little resilience, because their water catchment area does not enable them to store much water for a (non-)rainy day.

But Tuvalu is not so much an island state, as a state made up of extremely small islands that are very low-lying. Tuvalu has no surface water, and water storage on Funafuti is almost non-existent. Deforestation as a consequence of urban construction has reduced the capacity of the island to store water naturally. People used to tap groundwater resources for household use. However, pollution by saltwater intrusion and waste leachate has made groundwater no longer suitable for human consumption.

As Julia Edwards reported at the time, “People in Funafuti were forced to bathe in the sea and kill their livestock. Limited emergency supplies meant that each household was rationed to just two buckets of water a day (one distributed in the morning and another in the late afternoon). Many families were without water, and drinking-water supplies in the capital were down to just 2 or 3 days.” Australia and New Zealand came to the rescue with emergency supplies.

The new migrants from the countryside were the hardest hit by the drought. Most live in informal settlements around the edge of town. That means they were furthest from the points where emergency water supplies were distributed: by the time they got there, they were literally the last in the queue.

When Julia went back recently, it was the rainy season, which runs from November to April. She says, “Several weeks of untimely severe gales and heavy seas had combined with the usual downpours to disrupt shipping and to bring island life to a virtual stand-still. Unaccustomed to walking, and without re-supplies of petrol because of the rough seas, the 6,200 population of 7 miles (12-km)-long Funafuti, were left almost paralysed by the empty tanks of their motorbikes and scooters.”

Adaptation to climate change

With extreme weather events expected to become more common in future, and the western coastal areas exposed to cyclones and storm surges, how is this “tropical paradise” adapting to the threat? The Tuvalu government has a National Adaptation Programme of Action.  Julia reports that in preparation for the next drought the Tuvalu Waste, Water and Sanitation project is supplying a second private-tank to each household, to increase household-storage capacity. AusAID is funding communal tanks to collect rain water from roofs.

In the longer term, possible relocation of people cannot be ruled out, though for now it does not feature in Tuvalu’s climate change policy. In contrast Kiribati, another small island state in the Pacific, is negotiating to buy land in Fiji so that some of its citizens can escape from the consequences of rising sea levels.

Coastal erosion is literally eating away at the limited land resource. It also brings problems of salination. Soil removed through erosion is deposited on adjacent corals. This is adversely affecting fisheries in the lagoon areas. There are reports that shellfish are in steep decline, with the problem worst in the waters close to land and most vulnerable to pollution.

Most people live on the coast, putting further stress on vulnerable marine eco-systems. Essentially there has been no planning control over development, so much of the surge in development that has occurred is in places that are at risk to the impacts of climate change.

While expensive infrastructure has been provided, such as tarred roads that do improve the connectivity of rural parts of Funafuti to the town itself, the maintenance costs are high and again the threat of damage by extreme weather is a factor.

Food security

The porous soils of Tuvalu have limited fertility, and saltwater intrusion due to sea level rise is adding to the problems of producing food. Climate change is expected to decrease fruit tree yields significantly. This will affect in particular the livelihoods of rural residents on the outer islands where employment is limited. More migration to Funafuti should be expected.

Julia Edwards reports that the Tuvaluan Association of NGOs (TANGO), a group of 48 organisations, has been active in climate-related projects for the last decade. She says “Food security is a key component of its work (other important areas include water, sanitation, and biogas) and many projects are undertaken on the outer islands. For instance, swamp taro (pulaka), highly prized in Tuvaluan culture, but difficult to grow because of saline soils, is now being grown in raised, cement boxes on Nanumaga Island. Similar raised boxes of pulaka can be seen in Funafuti.”

What is to be done?

Aid agencies have helped Tuvalu to ride out immediate crises. International bodies are also helping. These include the Asian Development Bank, the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and UN-Habitat. However, it seems impossible to forge a workable future for Tuvalu within current parameters.

It is in this scattered group of small islands, so far away from most of us, that the remorseless equation between water, land and the use we make of land is being played out.  The prospect of people being forced to relocate from their homeland as a consequence of environmental changes caused by others, and over which the people themselves have no control, is deeply immoral. However, from a technical point of view it looks inevitable; a question of when, not if.

Meanwhile, it is important to recognise that the issues are about how to manage urban development. Things could be done. Facilitate voluntary migration; put in place participatory but effective systems for managing land use change and the land/sea interface; manage waste better; try to stimulate economic development on another island to take some of the pressure off Funfuti – and fill in the borrow pits!

Also see this presentation.

  • Midsit

    Love you Tuvalu xxxx