Tuvalu: to be or not to be, a personal experience

All over the world, people worry about climate change and Tuvalu. But how do they feel in Tuvalu itself? Greenpeace Finland

The idyllic coral atolls of Tuvalu are west of the International Date Line and north of Fiji in the Pacific Ocean. These islands, just 4.5 metres above sea level, have been the focus of recent climate change debate. What will the country do in the face of predicted climate change?

The main coral atoll, Funafuti, supports a population of approximately 10,000 and continues to draw islanders from surrounding Tuvalu islands. Bordered by the lagoon on one side and the South Pacific Ocean on the other side, the land between is only a few metres wide.

At king-tide the water washes in from the ocean over the atoll’s main road. Where the road is only a few metres wide, it flows into the lagoon on the other side. It floods through into the gardens, where houses are built on short stilts to allow the free entry of king tides. Kids enjoy the event; they sit on the floor, dangle their feet in the water and perhaps have a day off school.


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Walking along the road at first glance it looks like puddles of water left over by the rain. In reality it is water bubbling from underneath the bitumen and surfacing during king tides. Some of these water pools are so large and so deep that kids play with makeshift surf boards, sliding in and out of the water.

The Tuvaluans are well aware of climate change, but not overtly concerned about imminent lifestyle changes. They all speak of having observed changes to the coastline, rising salinity levels, and dying plants, they are well informed of the El Niño/La Niña effects of drought and flood, yet they do not speak about leaving their islands for a more secure or comfortable lifestyle.

Some attribute the retreating coastline to residents removing sand and coral for building houses. Others believe there is a natural rebuilding of one side of the coast with sand ridges stacking up on the inner concave sides of the island and thus compensating for the erosion elsewhere.

Some others are quite concerned about the physical changes they see around them and the messages they hear about climate change and its effect on low lying coral atolls like Funafuti. Despite their individual beliefs they are not willing to express themselves strongly. In any case, they say the islands are unlikely to sink in their lifetime.

Kids use kingtides as an excuse to surf the streets. Sue Bandaranaike

What they do talk about is the uncertainty of their children’s future on the island, and they say that decision is left to the children. Despite observing changes to their landscape and intermittent problems with water and weather, there are no signs of them leaving their islands immediately.

There are indeed the Tuvaluans who migrate temporarily to New Zealand, Australia or Fiji for work, but they always return to be with their families. Like many other Pacific Islanders they use the money for education or to improve their lifestyle.

Other than a few market gardens supporting home supplies and few industries (such as harvesting coconut palm), resources are minimal and land at a premium. Even the fish they eat is imported. Fresh fruit and vegetables are a luxury and most consumables are imported.

There is a major problem with waste disposal. Used plastics, cans, trucks, cars, refrigerators and washing machines are discarded in above-ground waste dumps and sometimes seen even between residential blocks.

At the northern end of Funafuti atoll, the road ends in a huge dump stretching for miles and miles. Strangely no vermin or flies are observed, probably because there are no food scraps. Leftover food is fed to the numerous pigs, a common acquisition among households and left in pens on the roadside, purposefully distanced from residential homes!

Playing soccer on the runway: flights are infrequent. Sue Bandaranaike

It’s a Catch-22 situation on this island where they cannot dig the ground to bury the waste nor even bury the dead. There is nowhere to dig without striking the water table within a few metres. Where land is at a premium, they must now bury the dead in their own front yards and even construct the tombs under cover in their verandas.

The runway, used only twice a week for international flights, is located along the broadest section of the island. During the evenings it is turned into a massive playing field – volleyball, soccer, football, cricket and a bit of car hooning on the side. A Tennis net is pitched at the airport on a cement surface, where young children are trained by a local professional tennis player.

Sport is a priority among the youth and so is Sunday School. These, together with the isolation of the island, are probably the major reasons why the crime rate is extremely low. Violence is rare and criminal offences minimal.

Pigs are kept for food and to get rid of waste. Sue Bandaranaike

Ironically despite the vast expanse of the surrounding water, water is at a premium. During the prolonged drought of 2011, water was rationed to just two buckets a day. This is hardly sufficient where the average household size is unofficially 10. In addition to the extended family within a household, relatives visiting from outer islands, children of relatives and friends schooling on the main island are always welcomed by the host family households.

Transport is mainly on motor bikes, with some cars and very few buses. The island is too small to support a rail network. The roads are narrow with several speed bumps and a speed limit of 40km/h. Traffic police and radars are redundant.

Communication here is mainly through the radio. Though a few households have a TV, the hotel TV is an attraction over a glass of VB, especially in the evening. There are no newspapers and therefore one less item to recycle. Communication is mainly by word of mouth, especially local gossip, and this has a positive impact on people’s behaviour. Any offensive behaviour, misconduct or misdemeanour will spread like wild fire through the small and intimate community.

Sea water bubbles up everywhere in Tuvalu. Sue Bandaranaike

The prime product of Tuvalu’s cottage industry are chains made of shells and local seeds, and when departing Tuvalu it is customary to bestow these chains for good luck. My departing memories of the island were when a woman loaded with a stack of these chains unloaded some of her weight on to my neck. I already had two other chains given by friends, yet politely received the gift. Arriving in Australia and declaring my newly acquired “treasure”, customs officers scrutinising my imports declared the seed content a risk factor and confiscated the lot! What remains now are my memories of a resource poor country, with a highly resilient and robust group of people simply making the best of what they have.

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