Tuvalu is drowning

The island nation is slowly being inundated as the ocean rises, and some citizens are fleeing. How will the world handle a flood of "climate refugees"?

Published March 31, 2006 11:37AM (EST)

One day in the late 1980s, Penisita Taniela was sitting on a straw mat in his stilt-raised house over a narrow slit of coral in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He fixated on the news blaring via satellite from New Zealand: Scientists visiting the islands of Tuvalu had determined that someday, the entire country would drown. Waves had already washed over his island when big storms hit, so the news didn't sound entirely improbable. But it did sound scary.

"I was thinking there would be flooding, and maybe I would have to help my family survive  like building some big boat and paddle in the water to save my family," Peni remembers.

He rushed to his father, Telaki, who had already heard the rumors. But to Telaki, that all seemed very far away. "Don't worry about that," Telaki said to Peni. "We are just waiting for many years, not now."

But over the next decade, Telaki himself began to notice changes on their home island of Funafuti: high tides getting higher, eroding beaches, water coming up through the soil.

"I said to myself, 'Yes, the scientists are really telling the truth, so it's a good time to do something than wait until the last minute,'" said Telaki. He had decided that rather than stay in Tuvalu and watch the sea slowly overtake his island, it was time to change his fate. And as for the two houses he had built in Tuvalu? "I just got up and left them behind," said Telaki.

As global warming causes the oceans to rise, coastlines across the Pacific and beyond are at risk. Low-lying islands like the nine that make up Tuvalu could become uninhabitable over the next century, along with low coastal areas, such as parts of Bangladesh, that currently have millions of inhabitants. The world has yet to determine what will become of these displaced citizens.

But whether we've decided or not, a new kind of immigrant is already emerging. Some call them "climate refugees." The arrival of families like Telaki and Peni's in Australia and New Zealand -- countries that have already maxed out their quotas serving traditionally defined refugees -- has sparked international debate over whether those displaced by rising waters should be classified as refugees at all. And, if so, which countries should take them?

For the immigrants themselves, the challenges are more personal. Leaving Tuvalu means leaving behind small islands with few cars, where locals spend much of their days barefoot on the sand, living in quiet communities where one can sleep on a local airstrip if it's too hot indoors. With a population of 11,600, Tuvalu is the second-smallest nation in the world, after Vatican City. And its Pacific Ocean location, midway between Hawaii and Australia, makes it among the most remote. Adjusting to a city like Auckland, New Zealand -- a sprawling, Los Angeles-like crisscross of highways, mini-malls and meat pies -- isn't always easy.

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Penisita arrived in Auckland in 2001, in the middle of winter, carrying only a small suitcase and a carton of fish. His birthplace was 2,000 miles behind him.

As he walked off the plane and down the jetway, Peni began to notice that all the people around him were wearing sweaters and long pants; Peni had on only his T-shirt, shorts and sandals. He wandered to the arrivals area, shivering, to wait for his uncle to pick him up. A security guard brought him a blanket. There Peni spent his first moments in New Zealand, regaining warmth and cursing his poor planning: "Why did you do that, Peni? It's New Zealand now! It's a different island!"

Five years later, on a sunny summer day in Auckland, Peni, who is now 32, laughs at the memory. We're sitting on a small grassy slope beside a large soccer field not far from his house, waiting for the first game to start. Auckland Tuvaluans gather here every Saturday to watch teams representing the various home islands play each other, and the next game features the yellow-shirted Nui islanders against the green-shirted Nukalaelae. Back in Tuvalu, inter-island games like these don't happen much -- travel between islands often requires taking an overnight boat, and the island communities remain somewhat insular. But here in Auckland, a pan-Tuvaluan identity is emerging. "That yellow one is a very good team," Peni says.

The western outskirts of Auckland, where the Tuvaluan community is firmly ensconced, could pass for an American suburb, with big-box stores, a shiny Westfield mall, and sprawling boulevards. But West Auckland is also New Zealand's own Napa Valley, a place where vineyards vie for space with KFC and McDonald's, and where immigrant labor is welcome. Just beyond lie the strawberry fields, where many Tuvaluans, including Peni, work when they first arrive in New Zealand.

Tuvaluans are the newest Pacific Islander group to make their way to New Zealand. Between 1996 and 2001, the Tuvaluan community here more than doubled, growing from 900 to 2,000 people. And in the upcoming census, it's expected to be much higher than that. Tuvaluan families move to New Zealand for a host of reasons, including job opportunities (since the close of the phosphate mines on a nearby island 25 years ago, the population has had few options for paid employment) and to escape overcrowding on the islands. And now there is the threat of sea level rise.

Peni says he has no regrets; he knows he's come to a land of opportunity. Still, he misses his "gang" -- he and his friends got matching tattoos, and fished and played in the ocean together growing up. "I miss Tuvalu very much, very much," he says, looking out at the vast expanse of green. When Peni speaks English it's with a stutter; the words emerge from his mouth in sudden bursts. He quit doing seasonal work in the strawberry fields and got a comparatively cushier job as a home healthcare worker -- he says, "I get paid to watch TV!" -- but the transition hasn't entirely alleviated his financial worries. "In Tuvalu if I don't have a job, I'll still be alive because I don't have to pay for my home there," he says. "But it's a very hard life here. Here you must go and buy your own food. And if I have no money to pay for rent, maybe I'll have to sleep outside the house. I am very worried about that."

Still, he regards New Zealand as a safer home than Tuvalu. "When the water comes up, if I stay in Tuvalu maybe I'll be floating in the water," Peni says. "I don't like to die in the water, so I don't want to be in Tuvalu when the water is coming up." He laughs when he says this. For many Tuvaluans, it's so surreal to imagine Tuvalu actually not being around anymore, it's almost funny.

Tuvaluans like the Taniela family are right to worry about the future. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations-sponsored group made up of more than 2,000 scientists, global warming will cause oceans to rise as much as 3 feet in the next 50 to 100 years. And even that estimate may be low; if the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica don't hold up, the swell could be much higher. Tuvalu, along with a handful of other islands, is particularly vulnerable because its islands are low-lying and narrow -- just 3 feet above sea level in many places.

Climate change has dominated Tuvaluan political life since the 1990s, so most Tuvaluans are very much aware of the dangers their islands face. The government continues to run occasional workshops to educate citizens on the predicted impacts of global warming and how it will affect them. Consequently, many Tuvaluans use the term "global warming" to describe the environmental changes they're starting to notice on their islands. Gauges monitored by the Australia Bureau of Meteorology have detected a 5.5 millimeters per year rise in Tuvalu's sea level in recent years, on par with average sea-level rise worldwide.

Still, there is some debate over whether climate change is responsible for the changes that islanders have noticed; some scientists have alternate theories. For example, the water coming up through the ground could be the result of the relatively recent graveling of island roads. Now that the gravel roads are in place, the theory goes, water has fewer places to naturally escape, so puddles appear in places they hadn't before. Or, El Niqo effects in the Pacific could be contributing to higher tides and storms. (This theory doesn't necessarily contradict the global warming theory, though, since El Niqo itself may be exacerbated by global warming.) And certainly the islands have environmental problems that weren't caused by climate change, like giant holes left behind by the U.S. military occupation during World War II, which flood with dirty water and trash during high tides.

Even if climate change is causing changes on the islands, there are scientists, like University of Auckland geomorphologist Paul Kench, who suggest that because islands are not static lumps of dirt, they will shift with the tides and naturally build themselves up further to withstand a rising ocean. Still, many of the scientists who subscribe to this resilient-island theory acknowledge that even if the islands don't end up entirely underwater, they will still very likely become uninhabitable.

But though they may be displaced from their homes, calling the Tuvaluans "climate refugees" is loaded with political meaning. Under the Geneva Conventions, the U.N. describes a refugee strictly as a person displaced from his or her homeland because of war or political persecution. New Zealand already accepts up to 750 such refugees a year, guaranteeing them residency, housing, counseling services and other benefits that most immigrants do not receive. Widening the definition further, some say, could make it harder for refugees who fall under the traditional definition to find refuge.

"This is a highly complex issue, with global organizations already overwhelmed by the demands of conventionally recognized refugees, as originally defined in 1951," U.N. Undersecretary-General Hans van Ginkel, Rector of U.N. University, said in a press release in October. "We should prepare now, however, to define, accept and accommodate this new breed of 'refugee' within international frameworks."

Sandy Gauntlett, climate-change coordinator of Friends of the Earth New Zealand, has been traveling around the world to raise awareness of the term. "These people are being forced into a position of where they have nowhere to go, including home, and that's the definition of a refugee," said Gauntlett. "And so we were trying to convince immigration ministers around the world, but especially in the more affluent nations, to recognize the stature and nature and actually the term 'climate refugee,' and no one has yet."

Scientists predict that climate change will have a disproportionate impact on underdeveloped nations. Activists are pushing for recognition of "environmental" or "climate" refugees in the hopes that industrialized nations will better understand the side effects of climate change if a whole new class of "refugees" come knocking on their doors. In a 2003 Guardian article, the New Economics Foundation's Andrew Simms wrote, "Creating new legal obligations to accept environmental refugees would help ensure that industrialized countries accept the consequences of their choices. In certain circumstances, the suggestion that the solution must lie at the national level could be absurd -- the national level may be under water." And he's not alone in his thinking: In a letter to Nature magazine last year, the Council for Responsible Genetics' Sujatha Byravan and Tellus Institute fellow Sudhir Chella Rajan proposed that countries responsible for climate change take exiles in proportion to the CO2 emissions they release. Under that plan, the United States, which last century produced around 30 percent of global carbon emissions, would house around 30 percent of the displaced. That translates into a quarter to three-quarters of a million additional refugees a year.

This issue is already being played out on a small scale in the halls of government in Australia and New Zealand. Ministers there are considering whether to grant Tuvaluans and other threatened islanders special immigration privileges because of their plight. Helen Clark, New Zealand's liberal Labor Party prime minister, is reported to have unofficially promised Tuvalu's leaders that New Zealand will be a refuge for all Tuvaluans in the event of an environmental crisis. But some conservatives, like New Zealand First M.P. Pita Paraone, say other nations should share the burden: "Tuvaluans need to be aware that there are other countries in the Pacific basin that can accommodate them just as easily as we can."

In Australia, the liberal-opposition Labor Party recently released a climate-change plan saying Australia should start preparing to accept thousands of islanders -- including those from Tuvalu -- into the country when their homes become uninhabitable because of climate change. And the country's Green Party recently introduced a motion in Parliament that would have officially recognized this class of migrants. But, according to the Australian newspaper the Mercury, Environment Minister Ian Campbell dismissed those suggestions: "To start planning an evacuation of the Pacific is really a ludicrous policy. It's absurd," he said. "The Australian government's policy is to work closely with the Pacific island nations." But that's assuming, of course, that these Pacific island nations continue to exist.

When I first met Peni, he was strumming a red guitar in the backyard of his in-laws' house. There, members of the Auckland Tuvaluan community were preparing for the giant feast to be held later that night, welcoming a choir visiting from Tuvalu as part of a traditional three-month group trip called a malaga. Auckland Tuvaluans use the malaga to stay connected to island traditions, and gather for elaborate feasts, dancing and prayer services that take days and nights to prepare.

For this celebration, old women prepared the food in the basement, frying traditional donuts called funa-funa on hot plates behind the stairs. As afternoon turned to evening, the whole extended family caravaned to a spare church hall and laid out the food -- at least 10 variations of taro root, as well as less traditional foods like strawberries and egg foo young -- in the center of the room. Families huddled together on straw mats, while the visiting islanders, dressed head to toe in orange, sat on chairs at the front of the room. A few young girls were employed to stand over the food swatting flies throughout the opening greeting ceremony and prayers. After dinner came the fatele -- a performance of traditional Tuvaluan singing, dancing and drumming, in which performers wear colorful straw skirts and crowns of flowers and leaves -- that lasted long into the night.

On a leisurely Saturday morning a few days after the feast, Peni invited me to his three-bedroom house in a west Auckland suburb, where he lives with his father and stepmother, three sisters, and his wife and their two young children. The Taniela living room, like most Tuvaluan homes, contains no furniture, only straw mats on the floor where his father and stepmother sleep (Telaki says it hurts his back to sleep on a bed after so many years on mats). The walls are lined in shell necklaces and family photos. After breakfast, Peni popped in a home-video tape of a fatele, which the family had brought with them from Tuvalu. His toddler daughter climbed off her bike and sat staring at the TV screen, humming along gently to the music. Peni is adamant that she and her brother know their parents' culture. "I need to keep my language," he says. And he hopes someday he can take his children back to Tuvalu, to show them where he's from. "They say, 'Tuvalu, Tuvalu, where is Tuvalu?' They don't know where Tuvalu is"

Anthropologist Michael Goldsmith of the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, who has spent time studying Tuvaluans and other Pacific Islanders, believes that home islands become important cultural symbols. He points to the example of Niue and Tokelau, two New Zealand-owned islands from which almost the entire population has emigrated to New Zealand. "Even if the majority of the people may live in New Zealand, if there is a homeland for people to go to, then that acts as kind of the image of the hearth of culture," says Goldsmith.

And what will happen if there's no longer a hearth? Vince McBride, who runs the Pacific Cooperation Foundation in Wellington, New Zealand, and has spent years working and living in Pacific islands, imagines a future where "Tuvalu" really means a minute corner of New Zealand. He says there's a danger that "the culture and the language would gradually start to be lost as a sort of a thriving, vibrant, live culture, because inevitably it would start to get eroded and swallowed up by the New Zealand culture." Of course, "Some people would be absolutely strong in insisting that they keep their culture and would have their own festivals and church gatherings and all the rest of it, but it would be inevitable over a period of time that the culture would start to erode away." McBride also acknowledges that predicting the challenges these displaced communities will face is difficult, because their situation is unique: "That's just a guess. We haven't seen a situation here where that's happened before."

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Koloa Talake was the prime minister of Tuvalu from 2001 to 2002. Before that he was Tuvalu's only ice cream vendor. Now he lives on a remote peninsula across the street from the beach, 45 minutes from Auckland, and keeps his distance from the tight-knit Tuvaluan community down the coast. It was during his term that New Zealand agreed to change its immigration policies to formally admit 75 Tuvaluans a year under its Pacific Access Category. New Zealand intended the Pacific Access Category to simplify its immigration policies, but for Talake, the request was a way to start moving people off the islands. "Eventually if the global warming takes effect, Tuvalu will be affected, and it's a problem of removing a lot of people off Tuvalu. This taking people each year is a gradual reducing the population in Tuvalu," explains Talake. "I thought that we should take precautionary action before D-Day arrives."

Talake speaks slowly and doesn't seem fully present here. He sits in his small modern kitchen in shorts, his eyes drifting through the glass windows of his porch, looking out toward the sea. He says the decision to ask another nation to take his people was both a "hard and a good policy." "You have to make a choice," says Talake. "Swimming underwater or give it up, and come here to New Zealand. You can preserve part of your tradition, that is suitable to your new environment. You keep those appropriate traditions and do away with the inappropriate ones."

Now Auckland Tuvaluan leaders, convinced they will have to adapt to the inevitable, are starting to think themselves beyond the islands. "We are trying to gradually build a house here," says Vaeluaga Iosefa, a longtime New Zealand resident. "By that house we are talking metaphorically -- a house that accommodates us not only for sleeping purposes, but also a meeting house, a church building, a house that can provide us food, a house that can provide us with the adequate income. It's a village resettlement project."

Vaeluaga is the younger brother of Rev. Suamalie Iosefa, the unofficial leader of Auckland Tuvaluans. He has the air of a college professor, with long gray hair tied gently in a ponytail, big sideburns. He pronounces each syllable precisely, and rolls his R's almost regally. "In Tuvalu, there are no doors to knock on, everyone sleeps in one room, there's open space, there's a framework there," says Iosefa. "That's the kind of environment we are proposing here. Bring the island here to New Zealand. Maintain all the essential dynamics there but also integrate the western New Zealand way of life."

Journeys aren't anything new for Polynesians, who traveled by canoe across the Pacific Ocean -- to far-flung spots like Samoa, Tonga, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Tahiti and Tuvalu -- long before European explorers arrived. And many Tuvaluans have spent at least some portion of their life away from their home island.

"Old people used to say you need two feet in order to survive," said Vaeluaga. "One foot to go to new land. And one foot to stay on old land. The underlying interpretation behind that is to go out into the world and look for better land, and look for a better life in order to survive, and if one person survives in New Zealand, then the whole clan can claim one is surviving there."

Vaeluaga believes that as the sea levels rise, Tuvaluans may have to stand in New Zealand on one foot alone.

But the current Tuvalu government isn't satisfied with letting the islands drown in exchange for a rescue boat. "I think these things are quick-fix types of approaches," said Tuvalu United Nations Ambassador Enele Sopoaga from his office one block from the U.N. building in New York, where he works full-time raising awareness for his country's plight. Tuvaluan officials realized their predicament early on, and were among the first countries to sound the alarm on sea-level rise, beginning with the 1988 Pacific Forum in Tonga. In 2000, the government sold the only thing it had of real monetary value -- a Dot TV (.tv) Internet domain name -- for $50 million and bought its way into the United Nations in an effort to gain a louder voice. Today, Tuvalu delegates like Sopoaga travel the world to U.N. conventions, Commonwealth meetings, and international environmental forums, hoping countries like the United States and Australia will heed their call, sign the Kyoto Protocol, and limit their carbon emissions. But, unlike Talake and other previous prime ministers, they will not accept a contingency plan.

"There are a lot of places in the world you can relocate Tuvaluans to and then forget about the problem of climate change. I don't believe this is a responsible way to deal with the problem," said Sopoaga. "Tuvaluans want to live in their own islands forever. To relocate is a shortsighted solution, an irresponsible solution. We're not dealing here with Tuvalu only. All of the low-lying island coastal areas are going to be affected. You tell me whether the world is ready to evacuate everybody. There is a challenge to reverse and address climate change, to try to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and I think the world should focus on that."

Some Tuvaluan citizens are not so optimistic. Fala Haulangi, a union organizer and radio host in Auckland, wants her people to be officially recognized as environmental refugees. Global warming is a topic of frequent discussion on her weekly radio show. She's a sprightly woman with giant hand gestures, and uses colloquial slang like "auntie" and "uncle" to refer to politicians. Although she often lets out a hearty laugh in the back of her throat, she takes a cynical view. "It's happening," she says. "I believe we better do something now instead of waiting. We can never change your uncle's [meaning Bush's] view in signing up for Kyoto Protocol. I think the damage is done, so now it's a matter of having someplace to go."

We're sitting at a Starbucks in a mall, overlooking the escalators. She turns to me, still laughing but suddenly urgent, emphatic. "Tuvalu is our identity, our culture," she says. "We may be Kiwis now, but I'm still proud of where I come from. The little ones born here say, 'I'm New Zealand born, but I'm a Tuvaluan.' It will be very hard to accept we're no longer on the map."

Read other articles in the Early Signs: Reports from a Warming Planet directory.

By Alexandra Berzon

Alexandra Berzon is a freelance journalist. This story was reported in a joint production of Salon, NPRs Living on Earth and U.C. Berkeleys Graduate School of Journalism.

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