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Human rights or climate wrongs: is Tuvalu the canary in the coal mine?

Tuvaluans’ home and their human rights are threatened by climate change. AAP

The Pacific Island State of Tuvalu recently reported that it had just days of water supply left for its population of 10,000.

The Government has declared a state of emergency and rationed each household to just 40 litres of water per day. The average household in Tuvalu has ten to 12 people.

Australia and New Zealand help out: but is it enough?

Australia and New Zealand have supplied water desalination plants which are now in operation.

But the situation is still being described as an emergency with no let up on water restrictions in sight.

Climate change has been cited as a cause of the water crisis, along with the intense La Niña weather pattern.

But what does the crisis mean for the human rights of Tuvaluans? And is there a solution?

Human rights and the water crisis

Changing precipitation patterns and rising sea levels have endangered fresh water supplies, threatening Tuvaluans’ right to water.

A right to water is implicit in human rights, including a right to health (protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (‘UDHR’), Article 25) and a right to life (protected by UDHR, Article 3 and International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (‘ICCPR’), Article 6(1)).

Other flow-on effects of diminished access to safe drinking water include increased susceptibility to disease and political unrest.

The right to health includes both physical and mental health. Protecting the right to mental health will be important given the inextricable link Indigenous people have with the land.

Right to self-determination

A key political right brought out by the crisis is the right to self-determination. The right is protected under Article 1(1) of the ICCPR.

Climate change threatens the right to self-determination of Tuvaluans by threatening their ability to remain a nation of people.

Tuvalu will become uninhabitable long before the land is actually submerged, as drinkable water becomes scarce and food crops fail.

Political and social instability caused by climate change threaten to eventually erode the ability of Tuvalu’s Government to meet its functions, including safeguarding human rights and democratic systems.

Undeveloped states such as Tuvalu are particularly at risk of these “consequences of consequences”.

Right to a healthy environment

Related to all rights identified above is the right to a healthy environment. This recognises that all people have the right to live in an environment that is safe and suitable to ensure their physical and mental health.

The right to a healthy environment is a recent concept. It was developed out of recognition that human impacts can degrade the environment, which has potential to threaten the life and wellbeing of people.

Upholding the right to a healthy environment involves protecting Tuvaluans’ cultural life and the traditional plants and animals on which they depend.

A human rights-based approach to the water crisis brings to light the significance of local Tuvaluan communities actively participating in responding to Tuvalu’s adaptation needs.

The need for deep greenhouse gas emissions cuts

Tuvaluan Prime Minister Willy Telavi pleaded at the UN General Assembly for the international community to act on climate change or his country would not survive.

Clearly, deep greenhouse gas emission cuts are required if the process of climate change is to be slowed or reversed.

Without these cuts, we may see victim states bringing international climate litigation against high-emitting states.

Should we create a new treaty for ‘climate refugees’?

What rights would the people of Tuvalu have if their land does become uninhabitable?

Some have advocated for a new multilateral treaty to deal with those who face displacement as a result of climate change: “climate refugees”.

Yet, the people of Tuvalu have rejected the notion of “climate refugee” status and some have stated it is offensive. Their reasons are complex, but it’s clear the term “refugee” has negative connotations.

Also, applying the term to climate change does not fit the legal definition of a refugee.

Refugees are people who are fleeing from their own government. But in a cruel twist of fate, Tuvaluans would be fleeing to the very governments that are responsible for their state’s demise.

Tuvalu’s proposal: a state within a state

Tuvalu has proposed that its people relocate to Australia and, interestingly, continue to function as a sovereign nation.

Under the proposal, Tuvalu would maintain its seat at the UN and continue to exercise its economic exclusion zone of about one million square kilometres of sea resources. Tuvaluans would hope to eventually return to their homeland.

The Australian Government has not commented on the proposal. But the idea is creative and may provide the best human rights outcome for Tuvalu’s 10,000 citizens.

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