Sinking Tuvualu wants our help as ocean levels rise

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click above for Tuvalu multimedia presentation

SPECIAL REPORT: Brad Crouch

October 04, 2008 05:00pm

SPECIAL REPORT: THE first nation likely to be overwhelmed by climate change wants Australia to accept its entire population if sea levels continue to rise.

Tuvalu, in the South Pacific, is one of the world’s lowest-lying nations and faces inundation within a generation by rising tides linked to mankind’s impact on the climate.

In a week where Ross Garnaut delivered his climate change report, the Tuvalu issue poses a question for Australia: Do we take on other countries’ problems as well?


SPECIAL FEATURE: Tuvalu in crisis


In a twist with far-reaching implications, Tuvalu Government officials and community elders are hoping in a worse-case scenario Australia will accept the entire population of about 10,000 and allow them to continue to function as a sovereign nation, in the hope of one day returning to their island home.

Tuvalu Prime Minister Apisai Ielemia visited Canberra in August in what Tuvalu officials described as a “secret visit” to float the migration plan. Australian officials have refused to comment on the meeting.

Such an unprecedented environmental evacuation could become the model for other low-lying nations such as Kiribati and the Maldives, which face being swept away by rising tides.

Tuvalu has previously approached Australia and New Zealand with pleas to open up a migration channel — Australia’s previous government twice refused, but NZ now accepts 75 migrants a year.

Data from groups including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the CSIRO indicate mass evacuation may need to happen within decades.

A gauge installed in 1993 shows the sea level at Tuvalu has been rising by 5.7mm a year.

Most of Tuvalu is just 1m above the high-tide mark and water already bubbles up through the porous coral during high tides, flooding the land during king tides.

Projections show that over the next century sea levels will rise by up to 0.8m, making Tuvalu uninhabitable.

The nation already faces problems from chronic flooding, storm surges and king tides.

Several islands have been lost to the sea in the past decade and there has been widespread shoreline erosion and salt contamination of areas used to grow the staple root crop pulaka.

Research by the Tuvalu Meteorological Service shows the nation, which has just 26sqkm of land area, has lost several per cent of that in recent years.

Tuvalu Government spokesman on climate change Kilifi O’Brien said the Government was drawing up contingency plans for a mass evacuation.

But he said any such evacuation would revolve around maintaining Tuvalu as an entity.

“If we lose our land we risk losing our identity,” Mr O’Brien said.

“We know if the worst comes to the worst, we would have to relocate.

“But we would be looking at taking one sovereign country to another — we would want to keep our economic exclusion zone, our United Nations seat and so on. We would want to keep our identity as Tuvalu, in another location.

“The Government is considering how to do this, and Australia is certainly seen as an option.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith declined to be interviewed about whether Australia would take Tuvaluans as refugees or whether the Government would allow a sovereign nation to operate within Australia.

But in a statement his office said Australia would, where necessary, consult with others in the region “how best to respond to the needs of people displaced by the impact of climate change”.

The Niue Declaration on Climate Change, recently agreed by Pacific Islands Forum leaders, including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, recognises the desire of the Pacific peoples to continue to live in their own countries and the importance of retaining the Pacific’s social and cultural identity.

The Federal Government has committed $150 million over the next three years to climate adaptation needs in the Asia-Pacific.

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