Tuvalu plight must be heard at UN Climate Change Negotiations

Campaigns and Advocacy, Climate Change, Opinion article written on the 14 Dec 2011

When I was a young boy, growing up on the island of Funafuti, Tuvalu, my father would take me out fishing.

We would stay close to shore. There would be such an abundance of marine life that in one and a half hours, we’d come back with more than enough fish to feed our family. We would share extra fish with our community. Climate change has changed all this.

Tuvalu is an island nation made up of nine small island atolls in the central Pacific. Our way of life, culture and traditions have served us for thousands of years.

We are half a world away from the UN Climate Change Negotiations in Durban, but our fate is intertwined with the outcome of this South African meeting.

We have always had only two seasons: the wet season, which runs from October to March every year, and the dry season, from April to September.

These two seasons dictate what to do and when to do them. Our traditional skills to plant and to fish depend mostly on the pattern of the weather.

In recent years, we’ve noticed a lot of changes that are making it impossible for us to live a life free from anxiety and worry. In fact, on Tuvalu, there is now an atmosphere of panic and uncertainty.

Our main protein supply is fish. Our sea has always been our refrigerator. We would go out to take whatever is necessary for the day.

Our shores used to be filled with colourful corals and an abundance of all kinds of fish. About 20 years ago, we noticed the corals were starting to lose their colour.

Now, 80 per cent of our corals have been bleached, due to the increase of the ocean temperatures and acidification from additional carbon dioxide. Corals, as we all know, are houses for fish, and bleaching of corals leads to the disappearance of our fish stocks, as they swim further out into the ocean, or simply die.

Fishing has therefore become a very expensive exercise to the ordinary Tuvaluan. Whereas before, we could venture just off shore, now we need a boat, and petrol. Those who have these things may not catch enough fish to cover the expense of the trip out to sea. Many of us now have to buy fish. This is just one way that climate change has made our lives more expensive.

The disappearance of these corals also is the loss of our first line of defense against any storm and wave surges. Corals break down the strength of wave surges before they hit the shores. With the disappearance of this line of defense, the shores are laid bare to the ocean’s assault.

Land is life to us. Our people are Indigenous communities who survive from their surroundings – the sea and the land. Whatever little land we have is considered very valuable, and is regarded as life passed on from father to son. Rising sea levels and increasingly intense storm surges have claimed a lot of land by poisoning it with salt.

In Tuvalu, if your land has gradually been eroded by the sea, you are literally looking at your life being eaten away. It tells you that you won’t be able to give life to your children and your grandchildren.

Soon there will be no more land for the people to depend on. Where will we go?
Our weather is more and more unpredictable. In the middle of our dry season we will unexpectedly be hit by a storm, and in the middle of our wet season, a long drought will occur.

The recent extraordinary drought led to the Tuvaluan Government declaring a state of emergency. On the main island of Funafuti, households were rationed to 20 litres of water a day.

Australia and New Zealand responded by delivering water to the country.
All our crops of bananas, vegetables, and pulaka died, and we had to rely on imported food to survive. When the heavy rains finally came, there was nothing left for them to water. We will have to replant.

Compounding these problems are our increased rates of diseases such as cholera and dengue fever. These diseases, under control in past years, have resurfaced due to hotter temperatures, and now are becoming resistant to treatment.
Our one hospital, and clinics across the islands, are overwhelmed with the number of sick people.

This is the reality for Tuvaluans – the consequences of a changing climate we did nothing to cause.

We are trying to adapt to our changed circumstances – by building strong sea walls, installing water tanks and planting mangroves to try to halt coastal erosion – but we do not have enough resources.

The longer rich countries delay releasing funds to help countries like Tuvalu to adapt to climate change, the more expensive it will be.

We are told that Australia will contribute to finance to help us adapt to climate change, but that it will be taken out of the aid budget.

I echo the concerns of development organisations like Oxfam, that argue that we need new financial commitments on the table from governments, rather than taking from a pot of money already pledged to assist us in our development – money we could use to educate our children or provide better health facilities for our families.

I am part of the Tuvaluan delegation for the UN Climate Change Negotiations because one of the things that keeps me going is the ability to be heard by the international community.
I want to make sure the challenges of ordinary Tuvaluans are heard, and that life in Tuvalu is recognised as just as valuable as anywhere else in the world.

Reverend Tafue Lusama, General Secretary of the Tuvalu Christian church and community leader, Tuvalu. And part of the Tuvaluan delegation to the UNFCCC negotiations in Durban (28 November – 9 December).

This opinion editorial was first published at ABC Online’s The Drum on 29 November 2011.