“No national leader in the history of humanity has ever faced this question. Will we survive, or will we disappear under the sea?” — Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sosene Sopoaga
rriving from Fiji on a twice-weekly flight, the three-hour trip is bumpy and cramped and mostly spent staring out a dense window looking for signs of life below. Floating closer, they eye catches flecks of green; nothing however that looks able to support human life. Finally, palm groves and rectangular iron roofs in an irregular row come into view, cutting through a narrow strip of habitable land.
This is Tuvalu, population 11,000. Halfway between Australia and Hawaii, an archipelago of nine atolls and coral islands rests precariously, one of the smallest and lowest-lying countries in the world.
Tuvaluans are one of a few nations of people whose very existence is threatened by the planet’s rising seas. In fact, the nation has developed a reputation as the ‘front line’ of sea level rise, and is now playing a role of design in environmental risks—and is an oft-referenced case study in academia. As part of a graduate thesis at M.I.T., I’m here to envision alternative futures catalyzed by climate change.
Atoll nations like Tuvalu, the Maldives or Kiribati have proven extremely vulnerable to changes in oceanic systems, rendering them urgent symbols of climate change’s impact. This isn’t about postcard-perfect lagoon isles slowly sinking below the waves; the actual risks to Tuvalu are far more complex and closely tied to the geological and natural systems that form the basis for atolls and their inhabitation.
As we step off the plane into the weighty tropical heat, it seems the entire population of Tuvalu’s capital—Funafuti—has come to greet our arrival. Likely because I’ve arrived with Eliala Fihaki, a Tuvaluan working in Fiji for UN Development Programme. Her aunt greets us and leads us to the road, pushing me and my suitcase onto the back of a motorbike. Fihaki explains as we ride that Fiji is a volcanic archipelago, with lush mountains, waterfalls, and a rich and complex tropical ecosystem. In contrast, Tuvalu is on an atoll: low, flat, and so close to the salty water that only a few plant species can survive.
While the market in Fiji’s capital bustles with villagers selling mangoes, bananas, pineapples, leafy greens, avocados, and even tomatoes, the fare in Tuvalu scarcely varies from the standard of tuna or reef fish (often raw) and coconut. As one of the few and precious natural resources in Tuvalu, coconut trees are used to make everything: food, beverage, liquor, body oil, building material, rope, and utensils. When I asked one woman what made Tuvalu unique she responded simply “the coconut.”
Atolls are a type of island formed by the build up of coral reefs and debris on the rims of subsiding volcanoes. As these volcanoes sink below the sea, all that’s left is ring-shaped build up of eroded coral sand, washed onto a framework of coral limestone. In other words, there’s a dizzying amount of coral in the natural infrastructure. As living systems, atolls maintain a symbiotic relationship with the coral surrounding them, making them highly susceptible to wave action, sea level rise, and changes in coral health.
Interestingly, coral has a biological ability to compensate for sea level rise by growing upwards towards the light; atolls have survived pre-historic sea level rises in this manner. Despite this adaptive capacity, projected environmental calamities going forward are more severe and active threats: the collapse of Antarctic ice sheets, massive coral bleaching due to the changing acidity of oceanic waters, and coral death due to increased water temperatures. Without a constant supply of sediment from healthy coral reefs, atoll nations such as Tuvalu would quickly erode into the sea.
My visit to Tuvalu in January coincides with the king tides, an annual phenomenon that results in several days of flooding and tides that creep higher and higher every year. During this time, saltwater bubbles up from the ground along the airstrip, which doubles as the community’s main recreation space.
Here, soccer players splash through ankle-deep puddles, while motorbikes skim through large pools, well acquainted with the aqueous ground. Along the road which hugs the lagoon for the length of the islet, waves crash steadily onto the pavement, dumping remnants of eroding sea walls and other debris onto the roadside.
More than just novelty or inconvenience, the saline infiltration makes it impossible to grow most crops. Pulaka, a root vegetable similar to sweet potato, is cultivated by Polynesian islanders by digging shallow pits and cultivating fertile soil by years of composting. King tides inundate these pits with saltwater, damaging and eventually killing off the Pulaka crops.
The king tides also contaminates the freshwater lens, a delicate reserve of potable water sustained by rainwater seeping into the soil. On most islands of the archipelago, the freshwater lens is no longer viable, and Tuvaluans now rely on rainwater collection for drinking, cooking and bathing; a strategy which is particularly risky in light of increasing droughts in the region.
Lomiata Nuiatui, Tuvalu’s only trained design architect, has experienced environmental change firsthand. He tells me, “Just in case someone ask you about water rising tell them: Since 2006, seawater level where my pig pen is has risen by more than 250mm.” That’s about an inch a year.
Tuvalu’s 2015 damage during Cyclone Pam was, from a global perspective, only a footnote to the devastation that the storm brought to the volcanic nation of Vanuatu, destroying its capital, Port Vila, and many remote islands.
While news sources showed the large scale flooding in Tuvalu and reported on the National State of Emergency, it went unnoticed that Pam passed a full 700 miles away from Tuvalu. The flooding which displaced 45 percent of the country’s residents was from a storm surge nowhere near the nation.
In 1972 Hurricane Bebe slammed Funafuti, destroying 90 percent of the housing stock and killing seven people. While severe storms pose issues for any low-lying islands, in this case risk was amplified by Funafati’s cheaply made housing, built to replace traditional island-friendly homes leveled by bombs during WWII when—due to its proximity to Japan—Funafuti hosted a U.S. Marine base.
Traditional Tuvaluan structures, like their many Polynesian counterparts, have aspects that enable them to weather intermittent tropical storms. Thatched roofs wick away water, coconut trunk columns embed deep into the earth for stability, and bases of coral rock elevate inhabitants away from floodwaters. In contrast, the U.S. Marines’ replacement housing had tin roofs that were easily ripped from the structure and flimsy clapboard frames that crumbled under the waves. Forty years later, construction methods have barely evolved and, there is unsurprisingly no building code for Tuvalu.
Atoll dwellers have typically been mobile peoples, moving from island to island when freshwater was tapped out, crops came up short, or conflict erupted. This was mitigated in the 1700s, first by Christianization and then colonization, each serving to anchor groups of people in place.
It was shifting claims by the Western world —first Britain, then the U.S.—that conceptually tied this archipelago into a territory of one island nation. This nationhood plays strongly into the future Tuvuluans face as their land becomes increasingly uninhabitable, binding their identity and rights to these sinking islands.
Adding depth to the dilemma, the parameters of the Law of the Seas (set by the UN Conference) allots each nation a 200 mile perimeter of oceanic territory, known as the Exclusive Economic Zone. For Tuvalu, this results in a territory of 10 square miles of land, and 350,000 square miles ocean. However, the liquid territories are only valid when they surround habitable land. One unprecedented response to this law was China’s controversial construction of new islands and territorial claims in the South China Seas.
Without China’s financial reserves, if and when Tuvalu subsides below the waves, the people of Tuvalu will have neither land nor water to claim as their own, and they will have no nation; they will be refugees.
Various proposals have been brought forward forward as to what this future might look like, from a mass resettlement to a Fijian island, to the even more costly and potential futile proposal of raising the islands. However, without a massive policy investment, creeping migration is likely to continue. (The most favorable migration policy for Tuvalu rests with New Zealand, which only allows 75 migrants per year via a lottery system.) At best, Tuvalu stands to become a diaspora, with those Tuvaluans who are slow to migrate at an ever-increasing risks for a catastrophic event.
Perhaps a relic of their ocean-going pasts, Tuvaluans place more significance on goodbyes than they do hellos. On the day of my departure, I check in to the room adjacent to the women’s center that serves as the local airport, and am told I can leave and return when I hear the plane land. While lingering outside, a downpour begins and the prospective passengers, including myself, Fihaki, and the ex-Prime minister, duck into a small pavilion to wait out the rain. There, the goodbye ritual begins, with damp hugs, shared coconut drinking, and assorted sea shell jewelry. Bedecked with half a dozen necklaces and earrings, Fihaki and I depart back over the stormy seas to more stable ground.