Tiny Pacific nation seeks global climate change help

By Ecumenical News International
September 9, 2008

One of the world's smallest nations, Tuvalu, has a big problem. Slowly, but surely, it is "going under" the relentless waves of the Pacific. Tuvaluans know it, but they don't accept that sinking is their ultimate fate - writes Kim Cain from Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Leaders of government, opposition, Church and town council all want the world to join them in saving their nation of 12,000 people, and in doing so, save the world itself from the worst effects of climate change.

"Don't give up on us," is the plea to the world by the head of the largest non-governmental organisation in the country, the Christian Church of Tuvalu (Ekalesia Kelisiano Tuvalu or the EKT).

The Rev Tofina Falani, the church's president, says his country is "on the frontline of climate change, and the evidence is before our eyes. We may be small - a peanut to a rich nation - but I am so thankful for God who gave us these small islands to call our home."

He adds, "Words can’t explain it, but I am so thankful to God for this 26 square kilometres [10 square miles] and I don't want to be forced by another power to leave this place."

Tuvalu is the world's fourth smallest country, bigger only than the Vatican City (0.44 square kilometres); Monaco (1.95 square kilometres) and Nauru (21 square kilometres).

Falani says people see the evidence of climate change before their eyes: big tides, coastal erosion, salty pools and ponds, and "swimming holes that were once clear waters where you could see the bottom but are now made up of low, dark water, and salty". He says this personal evidence humanises what is being demonstrated by scientific data: rising tides triggered by the accumulation of greenhouse gases due to human activity.

Tuvalu's environment minister, Tavau Teii, says his nation and the world thought they had 50 years to save Tuvalu, but, "recent research from the University of the South Pacific now informs us that we now only have 30." The situation is dire, he says.

Walk along the northern reaches of Funafuti Island, the main atoll in the Tuvalu group, and examine the evidence: once-large coconut trees have been washed into the lagoon, not by waves but by tides. A strand of a dozen more trees await their fate.

People say the problems are like a very sick patient; one health problem causing distress on other parts of the body. Tuvalu has a rising salty water table due to rising tides. This causes sanitation problems, which in turn affects sewage, and has led to spoliation on the reef around which the whole lagoon exists.

The Rev Kitionia Tausi, general secretary of EKT says, "Enough talking. We all know the sea is rising. It is time to reclaim Tuvalu. What's the use of more talking … If we don’t do anything we may as well leave now."

But Tausi is far from convinced that leaving is necessary.

"Why can't we raise Tuvalu?" he asks. "It is only 26 square kilometres in size. And that is counting all the islands." He notes, "With international help, we could raise Tuvalu, build sea walls to protect us from the tidal surges and embark on increasing the prosperity of our people." He cites the example of Japan building a whole airport on an artificial island.

Kelesoma Saloa, the prime minister's secretary, says, "We are putting before the world the question: 'Is it still possible for Tuvalu to exist on the face of the earth?' We are asking the global community to give us that chance." Saloa outlines how his government is pursuing its goals to save the nation through international forums, especially at the United Nations, and working in regional councils with countries such as Australia.

However, his nation can only leverage its smallness against the global powers to save itself. But, with the bigger picture in sight, Saloa says: "We still feel as though we have a chance to save the world by saving Tuvalu."

Or in the words of Falani: "This is our land, we call it 'fanua'- our home … We love Tuvalu. While I can eat Tuvaluan food in another country, speak the Tuvaluan language somewhere else, see my Tuvaluan friends and family elsewhere, I want to be in Tuvalu. Not someone else's land, but in these little atolls - the land God gave us."

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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