The newly built TCAP barrier against rising sea levels using sand dredged from the lagoon off Funafuti. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne. - Photo: 2023

Tuvalu Confronts Multiple Challenges on the Frontline of Climate Change

By Kalinga Seneviratne*

FUNAFUTI, Tuvalu | 4 Dec 2023 (IDN) — While COP28 in UAE debates about how to distribute money from the new climatic change reparation fund, the small Pacific Island state of Tuvalu is grappling with a multitude of climate change-induced problems that could take millions of dollars to fix, if at all.

“I was born here and raised here. I can see that our clean beach is now gone—only rocks there. Even the coconut trees that used to be on the coast are now gone. Sea has reached our main road,” lamented retired civil servant Seleta Taupo told IDN.

Tuvalu is on the frontline of the climate change battle. It is one of the remotest countries in the world in the centre of the South Pacific Ocean. A nation of 13 atolls with a population of 11,200, they have repeatedly called for greater action from major greenhouse gas emitting nations to stop the islands from getting drowned out within 30-40 years.

In 2017, a new defence measure against this threat was launched called the Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project (TCAP), with an estimated cost of $38.9 million spread over seven years. Green Climate Fund contributes $36 million, while the Tuvalu government provides co-financing of $2.9 million. The project is implemented by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in association with the Government of Tuvalu.

Given that retreating to higher ground is impossible in Tuvalu, TCAP has created 7.3 hectares of new and raised reclaimed land—dredging sand from the lagoon. It is over three meters from sea level and is now a Funafuti landmark. Since it will remain well above sea levels in 2100 and be able to withstand large storms under higher sea levels, houses and office buildings are expected to be constructed on this land.

In July 2023, TCAP provided the Tuvalu Government with a state-of-the-art online platform which, for the first time, allows the atoll nation to identify, plan for, and reduce risks associated with sea level rise and more frequent intense storms driven by climate change. This data will assist in identifying similar projects in other atolls.

“This high-resolution data became the baseline upon which TCAP’s capital works were designed, wave impacts models, and the data also underpins the TCAP Hazards Dashboard – all activities which are world firsts for a Pacific SIDS (Small Island Developing State)” Alan Resture, national project manager of TCAP told IDN. “It is this very data that provided the information for the development of the design for the land reclamation area on Funafuti.”

Climate change a punishment from God?

This project is designed to reduce the vulnerability of key coastal infrastructure – such as homes, schools, and hospitals—to high-tides-induced damage while strengthening institutions, human resources and knowledge for resilient and financially sustainable coastal management.

In recent years, intensifying cyclone events, rising sea levels and warmer temperatures have significantly undermined efforts to achieve sustainable development Goals (SDGs), particularly food security, health and water resources.

President of the Christian Churches in Tuvalu, Fitilau Puapua, says the threat of climate change here is serious, and securing people in their own country is essential. “There’s frequent droughts and strong winds. But sea level rise coming up with global warming is real here now,” he told IDN in an interview. “Our people have always recorded the rise of the sea. Our highest peak is only one meter above sea level”.

Pacific people are devoutly Christian, and it is believed that many remote communities think that climate change is a punishment from God and nothing can be done about it. When asked, PuaPua rejects that notion. He argues that when people destroy God’s creation (nature), they will have to face the consequences. “We believe one of those consequences is what we are experiencing as climate change. As a form of punishment from God—I do not support that idea”, he told IDN.

Changing weather patterns impact people’s health and food security, says Milikini Failautusi, Community Health Coordinator of Red Cross Tuvalu. “It was not like this before,” she told IDN. “There is a lot of dengue typhoid outbreaks during the year. One of the contributing factors is changing of weather … humid, hot and dry”.

Taiwan supports Tuvalu in vegetable farming

Failautusi says because of the weather here, people don’t grow food, and most of it is imported. Even fishing, which used to be an essential livelihood, is affected. “My father is a fisherman, and there are a lot of changes in the current. Now, they have to go further. One reason is that the heat affects currents and winds. They used to fish in the lagoons but now have to go further”, she added.

Tuvalu hardly grows any vegetables or fruits, and no market sells them. Some people have small vegetable plots in the backyard for their own use. However, the Taiwanese are introducing vegetable cultivation to the islands under a Taiwan-Tuvalu development aid program. Tuvalu is one of four Pacific island countries with diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

The Taiwanese run a successful vegetable garden on a plot of land basically on the beach next to the airport that was given to them by the Tuvalu government. Each Tuesday and Saturday, they sell their products to the public—mainly cucumber and spinach—and sometimes pumpkins and bitter gaud. The market opens at 6.30 am, and the stocks are snapped up by 7.00 am.

The project started in 2004 under a cooperation agreement between Tuvalu and Taiwan International Cooperation and Development Foundation. Tuvalu government has given them 0.6 hectares in Funafuti and another 2 hectares in Vaitapu island.

“There are many challenges growing vegetables here,” agriculture specialist Fa-Pin Chen of the Technical Mission of Taiwan to Tuvalu told IDN. “The main one is soil. In atolls, all soils are made by coral reefs (white sand). We have to use a lot of organic fertilizer compost—some chemicals. We mix coconut (growing in plenty on the islands) leaves with pig manure to make organic fertilizer. We don’t own piggery, but there’s a lot of pig raising here”.

Chen also said that they train locals to do vegetable farming, and some now work in small farms set up by the government. “Our average harvest here is about 2000 tonnes a month, but demand for veggies is getting higher and higher in Tuvalu in recent years”, he added. Their other farm harvests 2.5 tonnes a month and helps to feed a village of 1000 people in Vaitapu, including providing all vegetables to a local secondary boarding school.

Tuvalu’s sources of revenue are limited, with the main income coming from fishing licence fees under the South Pacific Tuna Treaty, foreign aid receipts and remittances of workers overseas, mainly in New Zealand. Its remoteness and high airfares have stalled attempts to develop a tourism industry. Only three flights a week arrive in Funafuti from Fiji, and only three hotels here are more like guest houses.

“When we first started to develop tourism, women were encouraged to provide rooms for tourists like Air BNB homes,” Vasa Saitala, President of Women in Maritime (Tuvalu), told IDN. “I was one of the ladies that offered a room. Because of airfares, there was no business. That discouraged us because we may have one visitor for the whole year. Not worth preparing for that industry”.

Church leader Puapua believes that Tuvalu has advantages in fisheries, but extensive farming needs investments. “We have minimal resources,” he says sadly.

*The writer visited Tuvalu from 25-30 November 2023. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: The newly built TCAP barrier against rising sea levels using sand dredged from the lagoon off Funafuti. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne.

This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 4 December 2023.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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