Tuvalu: Flooding, Global Warming, and Media Coverage

by Moya K. Mason

Kids Playing on Tuvalu

This short research overview on Tuvalu looked at the following questions and tried to answer them:

  1. What are the ways (if any) that the people of Tuvalu know the land is flooding?
  2. What are the projections on its disappearance? If the island nation is not going to be gone by the year 2100, what are the stages they expect to experience, and on what timeline will they happen until 2100?
  3. What media coverage has been done on Tuvalu's flooding?
  4. What are the documented case studies about specific Tuvalu people?


Tuvalu is one of the smallest countries in the world, after the Vatican, Monaco, and Nauru. Funafuti is its capital. Formerly known as the Ellice Islands, the nation achieved independence from Great Britain in 1979. This low-lying island group in the South Pacific Ocean is made up of nine coral atolls, with a total land area of 10 square miles, and is particularly threatened by rising sea levels. The island nation consists of four reef islands and five true atolls; it is located halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Tuvalu translates to "eight standing together" and refers to the eight traditional islands of Tuvalu (Nanumea, Niutao, Nanumaga, Nui, Vaitupu, Nukufetau, Funafuti, and Nukulaelae). The ninth island is tiny Niulakita. It was not a part of ancient Tuvalu and was inhabited much later, in the 1950's.


Considered one of the world's countries most susceptible to climate change, it has a population of approximately 11,000. Tuvalu is often described as a canary in a mine, with predictions that it will become the first country to follow Atlantis into the ocean. Beachhead erosion, coastal engineering, environmental mismanagement, overpopulation, deforestation, and deteriorating coral reefs are acting together and in conjunction with global warming to affect sea levels and cause damage to Tuvalu's underground water table. A 1989 United Nations report on the greenhouse effect stated that Tuvalu would completely disappear into the ocean in the twenty-first century, unless global warming was drastically diminished. United States is the world's largest overall polluter, while Australia takes the trophy for highest greenhouse-gas emissions per capita.

The spotlight first fell on Tuvalu when then Tuvalu Prime Minister Koloa Talake addressed world leaders at the Kyoto conference in Japan in 1997. He petitioned countries around the world to take immediate action on global warming and make the changes needed to stop it in its tracks. He explained his low-lying country's vulnerability to a rising sea and told the world how Tuvalu was sinking into the Pacific Ocean. Most nations present agreed to lower their emissions but neither the United States nor Australia supported the Kyoto Protocol, refusing to sign the agreement because developing nations were not subject to the same restrictions on the amount of greenhouse gases they could produce. In 2000, then Tuvalu Prime Minister Ionatana Ionatana again focused international attention on this small independent nation when he addressed the United Nations and spoke of global climate change and the impact that globalization has on indigenous cultures, security, and sovereignty.

Projections for Tuvalu's Future

Global warming is expected to bring major changes to climates around the world, causing shifts in climate zones, a rise in sea levels, and fluctuations in weather patterns never seen before. Farmlands may experience droughts, while deserts could become vast stretches of oases. Food crop reduction is a possibility and the salination of groundwater is very likely. Vicious storms will become more frequent and hot climates could see a drastic rise in their mean temperatures. Ice caps will melt, entire countries will report much colder temperatures, and islands may disappear. Islands like Tuvalu's coral atolls. Will they disappear?

Scientists have done a lot of work in recent years in an attempt to make some sense of the numbers and scenarios that have flown out of various studies and joint projects. They are interested in predicting how much the sea will rise over the next century, so that coastal planners and engineers can prepare by implementing measures to enable entire regions to adapt to the effects of changing climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to study climate change and understand its impacts. Scientists from all over the world collaborated and shared their research. They constructed thirty-five scenarios to help them understand the intricacies and possibilities involved in the many factors affecting global average sea level changes.

Sea Levels

Taking all 35 SRES scenarios into consideration, the scientists projected a sea level rise of 9 cm to 88 cm for 1990 to 2100, with a central value of 48 cm. The central value gives an average rate of 2.2 to 4.4 times the rate over the 20th century. It can be expected that by 2100 many regions currently experiencing relative sea level fall will instead have a rising relative sea level. Extreme high water levels will occur with increasing frequency as a result of mean sea level rise. Their frequency may be further increased if storms become more frequent or severe as a result of climate change.

A mean annual warming of 2 degrees Celsius or higher by the 2050s and 3 degrees Celsius for the 2080s is projected. Modest declines in annual precipitation in the Pacific Ocean region are also expected along with heavier rainfall intensity. Given emissions of greenhouse gases up to 1995, a 5.12 cm rise in sea-level is inevitable. However, even if all countries met their Kyoto Protocol commitments, and if all emissions of greenhouse gases ceased after 2020, a sea-level rise of 14-32 cm is very likely.

To the extent that disagreement exists within the scientific community, all models still project a warmer future: between 2.5 to 10.4 degrees F warmer by 2100. Even at the lowest end of the projected range, temperatures will climb more than twice as much this century as they did during the 20th. The projected increase, the IPCC report says, "is very likely to be without precedent during at least the last 10,000 years."

What all this will mean for Tuvalu is pretty clear, especially considering that many parts of the nation currently have an elevation less than one meter above sea level. Keep in mind that the country's highest point is less than 5 meters. To establish a timeline, choose a location on Tuvalu and find out its elevation. You can then use the graph to determine if the area will be underwater at any particular date between 1990 and 2100.

Of course, many factors will affect its sustainability, in particular, whether its coral reefs begin to regenerate. In addition, if foreign investment and aid come together to create sustainable development, Tuvalu will be better able to adapt to climate change and a more secure future will be possible. El Nino will also play a significant role. In general, a lack of long-term data does exist in the case of Pacific sea levels, along with the uncertainties involved in sea-surface temperatures.

Signs of Sea Rising and Flooding

The people of Tuvalu don't need to read scientific reports or have researchers and government officials explain their predicament to them. They can see and feel it for themselves, especially when the ocean crashes into their bedrooms more and more nights every year. Here are some of the changes they have noticed over the last few years.

1. Salt water is flooding the shores and killing coconut palms. Many large parcels of land used for palm plantations are no longer of any value, greatly affecting the local subsistence economy. The nation's chief export of dried coconut meat is threatened.

2. Pulaka is the staple diet of the people of Tuvalu. Salt water has seeped into the island's pulaka pits, which are used to grow the food crop, making the pits unfit for further cultivation. In some places, three-quarters of the plants have died, leaving people reliant on imported foods. Fruit trees and pandanas are also suffering. Salt-water intrusion has already affected communal crop gardens on six of Tuvalu's eight islands.

3. In general, the people of Tuvalu are having difficulties growing their crops because of salination of the soil.

4. Areas of the island are flooding that would not have flooded ten or fifteen years ago.

5. Spring tides have steadily gotten higher. King tides have also grown over the last years with the increase of the average atmosphere temperatures; sea water is now bubbling up through the porous coral landscape.

6. Groundwater is increasingly becoming undrinkable due to sea-water intrusion. It is brackish and salty. Islanders are relying on rain water catchment because saltwater intrusion into their aquifers is adversely affecting drinking water.

7. Several months of the year planes have difficulty landing because the airport's runway is partly underwater. That is something new.

8. Some Tuvalu residents have been forced to evacuate parts of the country because of rising sea levels. The New Zealand government established an immigration program called the Pacific Access Category to help qualifying Tuvaluans start over in a safer environment.

9. Family burial plots are sinking into the ocean or being moved to higher ground.

10. Water levels on the island are often ankle-deep. Ponds of seawater can appear anywhere and do. Severe lowland flooding is regularly seen on Tuvalu.

11. Floods used to occur twice a year. Now it is every month. One of the smallest islands, called Te Pukasavilivili actually disappeared in 1997.

12. New houses are all currently built on 10-foot-tall stilts, something never before seen in the traditional architecture of the island groupings. Nightclubs, restaurants and hotels are also being raised.

13. Fisherpeople have noticed rising sea levels and eroding shorelines as the island atolls shrink, some to half their original size.

14. Encroachment from the sea has claimed at least one percent of the 10 square miles of land that make up the archipelago. What used to be a sandy beach north of the wharf is now stony foreshore below the hotel where a retaining wall has been built to temporarily stave off the inevitable.

15. Tepuka Savilivili, a small island on the rim of Funafuti atoll, was washed over by waves a few years ago and its vegetation destroyed. It simply vanished in 1997.

16. The roots of coconut trees are rotted by the ocean, as every year sees more trees get swallowed up and replaced by beach. On the nearby islet of Vasafua, the coconut trees are dying. Entire atolls covered with trees have been stripped bare.

Media Coverage

Media coverage of Tuvalu's plight has been comprehensive. Around the world and in a variety of languages, Tuvalu is a topic for discussion. The country has become the poster child for the impact of the greenhouse effect and global warming, and has definitely put a face on climate change and its repercussions. Journalists have taken the story of Tuvalu's sea-level rise and run with it. Mother Jones, Time, The Smithsonian, National Geographic, and Science are just some of the magazines that have given it space between their covers.

Television stations, newswires, numerous other magazines, and newspapers have covered the plight of Tuvalu's people faithfully and exhaustively, calling them the world's first environmental refugees. Popular radio shows have reported on the fragility and future of Tuvalu. NPR's All Things Considered has spotlighted the tiny island nation at least twice, and Canada's CBC network has covered the story in Sinking Cities: Tuvalu. The BBC and Radio Australia have also offered consistent coverage. Radio stations around the world have kept a vigil with the people of Tuvalu. Thousands of web pages and portals owe their existence to the island, its people, and a culture that is slipping away and into the ocean.

High Tide: The Truth About Our Climate Crisis by Mark Lynas, Time & Tide: The Islands of Tuvalu by Peter Bennetts and Tony Wheeler, and SOS Tuvalu by Pirkko Lindberg are considered important and influential books on the subject.

Tuvalu has also captured the hearts of many filmmakers. The following are some of the more recent and important offerings:

People's Stories

Tuvaluans are eager to get their stories out, in part, because they want the world to know how things have changed for them and to ask for help in keeping the sea at bay. They also want their way of life captured for future generations, before the old ways are gone forever. Before there is nothing left of their homes and gardens. They talk to activists and environmentalists and journalists and filmmakers, to anyone who might listen. The residents explain what the rising water means to them and chronicle the changes they have witnessed over time. Here are some of their stories, told mostly in their own words.

Life on Tuvalu

Young Tuvaluans are already being sent away to safer environs where they can get better educations and have more choices for the future. Some parents are no longer willing to wait until they have no chance of escape, and as a result, entire families are relocating to countries such as New Zealand. When you consider the flooding, the erosion, gigantic freaky waves, and high tides, perhaps it is not surprising that many more of Tuvalu's people are considering leaving.

"I'm worried about the islands," said one woman with tears in her eyes. "This is the best island I know, and I think it's going to end up under the sea. We're thinking of migrating to New Zealand. I don't want my children to see this, it's enough."

"I think it would be better if my kids were somewhere else," said hospital worker Beia Fetau, 40, preparing to help with Sunday school in shirt, tie and traditional male "sulu," or skirt.

Many islanders have noticed changes taking place around them. Tauala Katea talks of the ten feet of beachfront that have disappeared on the island of Vaitupu over the last ten years. Falealuga Apelamo, 77, a retired fisherman and farmer, says one small islet from the nearby atoll of Nukufetau has "drowned," another is almost gone and the sea is crashing through a third. "The big waves and winds and storms used to come in November and December," he adds. "Now it's any time of the year." At the southern end, old-timers say, their meeting hall used to stand in the middle of the village. Now it is waterfront property.

Don Kennedy is a first-hand witness to the encroaching sea on Tuvalu's shores. "I grew up in Tuvalu as a child and left as a young man. When I lived there I had never heard of such things as hurricanes or king tides. Now the king tides go right up to the houses and they're becoming more frequent every year. In Tuvalu they used to say it was the hand of God and God that will look after them. But now there is evidence of climate change. A few educated people are expecting catastrophe to happen."

Kennedy no longer lives in Tuvalu, deciding to make a new home for his family in New Zealand. He is also determined to see that the people he left behind have a chance for a new life some place else. He is raising money to build a new settlement on the Fijian island of Kioa.

Losi Tuaga, 18, also contemplates and worries about the rising sea levels as tides flood homes, buildings, and parts of the airport, while she stands in ankle deep seawater near her home. Her father, Tuaga Petelu, says the climate is rapidly changing. "There is a change in the sea level," he said. "What can we do? We have to wait and see what's happening."

Storms used to be the most frightening times on the small coral atolls, but now a nice day can also bring disaster for no apparent reason. "Last August," Prime Minister Saufatu Sopoanga explains, "on a clear, calm day, a sudden wave surge rolled in from the sea and washed across Funafuti into the lagoon, flooding houses. Here in Tuvalu we don't need to refer to reports because we see the evidence with our own eyes every day."

Retired sea captain, Lotu Pasefika, wades knee-deep in front of his house as the floodwaters continue to rise and the ocean crashes onto the rock rampart 100 feet away. "The first wave broke in when I was down the beach feeding my pigs," he said. "It came without warning. So I went to alert people. The second wave came in then, and that was the one that brought all the debris ashore. We've had high tides before. But this is the first time it's reached my doorstep," he explained, gesturing to the water still flowing down the island's main road.

Funafuti Conservation Area Officer Semese Alefaio reminisces about better times before the storms became more frequent and the sea was not so menacing. Lush forests and wide sandy beaches have been reduced to barren narrow sandbars, strewn with garbage.

Teautu Teuria says that the last six years have seen a 10 meter strip of his land washed away by the tides. "I had to dig up the skeleton of my brother and make him a new grave further inland."

A local man points out a rusted field gun left over from World War II's Battle of Tarawa, in which U.S. Marines seized the island from the Japanese in 1943. "Even at high tide, that gun used to be 15 or 20 m from the shore," he says. Now the sea laps at its base.

"It used to be puddles. Now it's like lakes," said Hilia Vavae, local meteorologist.

"A month ago the tide came right here," the sarong-clad old man said, pointing 3 feet away to the lip of his concrete-slab patio. "It's getting dangerous," he said, with the thunder of waves as a backdrop.

"People got especially worried when the runway flooded. That's new," Margaret Bita, 45, told a visiting reporter after Sunday church services.

Siaosi Finiki, 68, the chief of Funafuti, gives the history of ten generations of his family, who lived on Tuvalu and survived by fishing and farming. He points to what is left of his croplands. "Look at this plant," he says dejectedly, running his finger on the yellowed edge of a leaf. "It's limp. It's no good." He dips a finger into the water that runs in a shallow drainage channel. "Salty," he says. Seawater, Finiki says, has infiltrated the layer of fresh water that sustained his plants. When did it start? "Maybe five years ago," he says, referring to the same storm that swamped Tepuka Savilivili, in Funafuti's lagoon. "A big wave came ashore and covered the land. Since then, people aren't planting so much. The fruit is smaller and doesn't taste good. Sometimes it's rotten. I'll plant as long as I live," he says. "The crop is no good, but I'll keep planting."

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