The Heat Is Online

Tuvalu Faces Its Future: Stronger Storms, Rising Seas

Sinking Islands Cling to Kyoto Lifebuoy
Reuters News Service,
Feb 13, 2005

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Islanders on tiny Tuvalu in the South Pacific last week saw the future of global warming and rising sea levels, as extreme high tides caused waves to crash over crumbling sea-walls and flood their homes.

"Our island is sinking together with our hearts," wrote Silafaga Lalua in Tuvalu News.

Tuvalu is a remote island nation consisting of a fringe of atolls covering just 10 sq miles, with the highest point no more than 17 ft above sea level, but most a mere 6.5 ft.

Global warming from greenhouse gas pollution is regarded as the main reason for higher sea levels, now rising about 2mm (0.08 in) a year, which could swamp low-lying nations such as Tuvalu and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean if temperatures keep rising.

On Feb. 16, a landmark U.N. pact to curb global warming comes into force. Under the Kyoto Protocol, developed countries are meant to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, largely from burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil in power plants, factories and cars, by an average 5.2 percent below 1990 levels during 2008-12.

But the world's biggest greenhouse polluter, the United States, has refused to join Kyoto, while some Kyoto signatories such as Spain and Portugal have increased greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent over 1990 levels.

Last Tuesday evening, Tuvaluans in the capital Funafuti watched extreme high tides and strong winds send waves crashing across the island's main road, littering it with rocks and debris."It's that time of year again when my tiny island nation gets hit once again by strong winds and high tides," said Lalua.

"The sea-walls that were constructed to be barriers from the wrath of the waves and the sea stood no chance against the damages of the sea over the years, and now they are only tatters of wire among debris along the shores," said Lalua.


As children rode the waves on makeshift surfboards, trailing behind cars and vans dashing for higher ground, their parents watched helplessly as their homes were flooded.

"Homes located on the narrower parts of the island experience flooding every time the tides are high," said Lalua.

"I for one do not want my island wiped out from the face of the earth, and I call for help, from those in power who can do something to change our island's situation," she said.

"Your help and consideration will be treasured by every Tuvaluan around the globe." In an address to the U.N. General Assembly in October 2004, the Tuvalu government pleaded with the world to save the island nation from climate change.

Tuvalu said it understood that for many countries, particularly developed nations such as the United States, national security was now a priority and the island nation supported the war on terror.

Tuvalu representative Enele Sopoaga told the General Assembly that national security was also a priority for Tuvalu, but the threat it faced was not from terror groups or weapons of mass destruction but climate change.

"For Tuvalu and many small-island developing states security should be seen in its multi-dimensional nature. Our national security is threatened by environmental degradation emanating from outside the country," Sopoaga said.

"The impact of climate change has the potential to threaten the survival of our entire nation," he said.

Seas rose by 10-20 cm in the 20th century, according to U.N. scientists. Thermal expansion -- water expands as it warms -- would be the main cause of rising seas along with melting glaciers.

But the biggest threat is if huge ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica melt. If that happened Tuvalu would be well under water and the coastlines of the world swamped.


Some environmental experts say recent evidence of a faster-than-expected melting of Greenland and Antarctic ice indicates that the rise in sea levels would be in the upper half of a 9-88 cm range projected by the U.N.'s climate panel by 2100.

"The Kyoto Protocol is not going to fix the problem in terms of rising sea levels," said Adam Delaney, Kyoto spokesman for the Pacific Islands Forum, which represents 16 island states.

Small island states had originally sought a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, but accepted the 5.2 percent agreed at Kyoto as a start.

But some scientists say an emissions cut of at least 60 percent is needed to prevent catastrophic impacts of climate change this century, including more intense cyclones in the Pacific.

Today, while small island states welcome Kyoto finally coming into force, they say more needs to be done for their survival.

The world's biggest polluters the United States, India, China and Brazil must commit to large-scale greenhouse emission cuts, Delaney said. Even a slight rise in sea level threatens their existence. Freshwater supplies, essential to inhabit tiny islands, lie only just below the surface and can easily be contaminated by rising ground salt water or storm surges.


(c) Reuters 2005. All rights reserved.