That Sinking Feeling


In the tsunami of media coverage following the release of the latest scientific report on global warming, the Pacific was all but completely overlooked. But it’s in the Pacific that the effects of global warming are already being felt.

‘We should have acted a long time ago, and I think that any action that takes place now is dealing with the damage, not stopping the disaster,’ Kiribati President, Anote Tong, said in Tokyo just before the dense Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report was released last week. ‘It’s just like any disaster, like a tsunami in Aceh, but it takes longer to happen. And because it takes longer, it doesn’t seem to attract the same degree of attention,’ said Tong.


For Pacific atoll countries, like Kiribati, and Tuvalu to the south, the major looming effect of global warming is sea level rise but this isn’t the only effect it is having. The leading Polynesian band, Te Vaka, have a song called ‘Ke Ke Kitea’ (So You Can See) which is a plea for developed world leaders to come to the Islands to see the effects of global warming. To find out how global warming is really affecting Islanders you have to travel there and see for yourself.

On Funafuti, the boomerang shaped 12-kilometre long capital atoll of the nine-atoll country of Tuvalu, the highest point of land is about 3.7 metres above mean high tide. Late on Tuesday afternoon, 28 February, 2006, Funafuti recorded its highest ever high tide, just over 3.48 metres. As the tide peaked, I was wading, knee deep, along a flooded road just south of Funafuti Airport, to talk to worried locals who had never seen extreme high tide seepage so high at that part of the atoll. Only luck prevented their houses from being flooded.

At the time, the best available data, from an Australian tidal monitoring system with instruments strategically placed around the Pacific, including on Funafuti, showed the sea around the atoll had risen about seven centimetres over the past 13 years. While seas in the Pacific don’t rise like water in a bath Arctic and Antarctic ice melts don’t necessarily cause sea level rises around places like Tuvalu other factors, such as rising surface temperatures, and longer and more persistent El Niño events, contribute to creeping sea level rise.

The eastern, barren Pacific Ocean side of Funafuti Atoll is really weird. Locals don’t go out there much. You get this deeply spooky feeling that the roiling ocean’s out to get the atoll, battering it, nibbling at it, seeping underneath and then up through it, and when there’s a storm surge or a tsunami from a cyclone or deep sea tremor far away smashing into and over it, deeply frightening the 4500 or so Tuvaluans crammed on the 3.5 square kilometre atoll.

The traditional staple food crop in Tuvalu is a large swamp taro called Pulaka, which is grown in deep mulched pits dug into the atolls. Pulaka growing secrets are passed from father to son. Each year they have Pulaka growing competitions, which are reported on Radio Tuvalu like fearsome sporting competitions. The size of the winning Pulaka is extraordinary as long as a metre and up to  a couple of kilos in weight.

But on Funafuti Atoll, thanks to sea water seepage through cracks caused by World War II excavations and the building of the first air strip, the Pulaka is dying, and with it are important Tuvaluan traditions. It’s deeply saddening to stand with worried Elders looking at the Pulaka’s elephantine green leaves tinged with yellow a sure sign the Pulaka beneath the flooded pits is sick. Global warming hasn’t caused this tragedy, but it certainly amplifies the sea water seepage which is poisoning the atolls from beneath.

Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu. Looking to the south, the Atoll snakes between the vast Pacific Ocean to the east (left) and Te Namo (the lagoon) to the west (right). The highest point of land is about 3.7 metres above mean high tide.

Sitting with Elders in a Tuvaluan fale (open sided, thatch-roofed hut) is another way to learn about the effects of global warming. They’ll tell how fish migrations have changed, and how the changes disrupt traditions for catching and sharing different species. Coconut, pandanus, and breadfruit harvests aren’t as bountiful. The winds, sea currents, and bird migrations seem ‘wrong’ not what they were in their ancestors’ time.

The rains aren’t coming like they used to, the Elders say. But when it does rain, the storms often cause widespread flooding because, with a saturated water table, there’s nowhere for the fresh water to go but outwards. As it later seeps into the atoll, it mixes with contaminated brackish water that is also polluted with sewage, and is useless, even dangerous, to use on locals’ gardens.

In between storms, they get fresh water from tanks everywhere on the atoll, but when these run dry in an El Niño-amplified drought, a hideously expensive desalination plant produces fresh water which is trucked around the atoll so that households can drink and cook, at least children can be bathed, and toilets occasionally used.

Tuvaluans are a devoutly Christian people, and quite a few Elders believe God’s promise in Genesis Chapter Nine to never again flood the Earth. Following an afternoon storm, a glorious rainbow can arc across the sky to the west, bracketing the Motu (islets) on the far western edge of Te Namo lagoon some 18 kilometres away, reaffirming, at least for the more devout, that God’s promise is still strong. All this talk about global warming and sea level rise threatening Tuvalu’s very existence is just Palagi (White person, outsider) stuff.

The Faifeau (pastors), and most of their flock, know that while God’s promise remains strong, it is human wickedness that is wrecking Tuvalu’s environment. They teach that humanity has failed in our stewardship of God’s good environment, placed in our care by Te Atua (the Almighty).

South Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu, late afternoon, February 28, 2006 Tuvalu experienced its highest high tide on record. Photos care of the author, © Dr Mark Hayes

Out on the western edge of Te Namo, at Tepuka Motu, standing on the remaining thick, pinky white coral sands, my friend Semese Alefaio a conservation worker charged with the care of the Motu and I look at the heartbreaking sight of large coconut and pandanus palms fallen into the lagoon, as the Motu is being steadily eroded. Not far away is a portent of the future: a brown, sea-scoured rock called Tepuka sa Vili Vili, which was once capped with thick tropical atoll forest like Tepuka and girded with dazzling coral sand beaches. Ten years ago, Tuvalu was brushed by a cyclone which seriously eroded the protective beach and damaged Tepuka sa Vili Vili’s thick tropical atoll forest cap. The relentless, indefatigable Pacific Ocean finished the job. Tuvaluans from Funafuti, who used to use these Motu for picnics and ceremonies, talk about how their childhood playgrounds are slowly and steadily disappearing.

Semese has shown me coral bleaching where protective reefs are crumbling, and the steady beach erosion around Funafuti and the outer Motu is obvious as he steers the boat around Te Namo. Some
of the erosion is caused by wartime and more recent port and coastal building, which interrupted sand-replenishing currents. Some of it, he says, in his quiet Tuvaluan way, is caused and made worse by global warming’s effects.

Some scientific, policy, and popular writing on global warming warns about probable environmental refugees seeking succour from sea level rise inundating their coastal or island homes. While New Zealand has a special category allowing 75 Tuvaluans a year to immigrate on environmental grounds, Australia refuses to acknowledge environmental refugees from the Pacific.

The recent IPCC report actually a summary of the best available science on global warming for policy makers is the first  in a series of three due for release this year. The next report, due for release in early April, will focus on regional impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, and it’s here that more attention will be paid to the Pacific.

My Tuvaluan friends have a saying, ‘Tatou ne Tuvalu Katoa’ (We are all Tuvaluans). Used locally, it’s a call for Tuvaluans to work together for the betterment of their tiny, vulnerable country. The IPCC report reinforces that all of us are, in an important sense, Tuvaluans, beset by the same global warming threats with which they live every day.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.