Sun, Jul 20, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Rising sea waters force Tuvaluans to look elsewhere


Faced with the prospect of being swamped by rising sea levels, the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is considering evacuating its 9,300 residents.

With a highest point just 5m above sea level, Tuvalu is one of the world's most low-lying countries. Half its population is crammed on the 30 hectare Funafuti atoll, which is only 3m above the waves.

With global sea levels predicted to rise by more than 80cm over the next century, Tuvaluans are living on borrowed time. The only solution, according to the government, is to transport the entire population overseas.

"We don't know when the islands will be completely covered," says secretary to the Tuvalu government Panapasi Nelesone. "But we need to start working on this now."

Nearly 3,000 Tuvaluans already live overseas, and a government program is now relocating 75 more every year. But Tofiga Falani, the president of the Tuvalu Congregational church, says that more urgent action is needed.

"We must know that someone will be able to provide land for us, before a storm washes our islands away altogether," he said. He is in Melbourne this week lobbying Australia to set aside land to serve as a new home for Tuvalu's people when they finally quit their nine inhabited atolls.

Fresh data on sea-level rises have given a new urgency to his concerns. The consensus last year from Australia's national tide facility (NTF), which monitors Pacific ocean, levels, was that there had been no significant changes around Tuvalu for 10 years.

Some analysts even suggested that the aftermath of El Nino could cause sea levels in the area to drop by up to 30cm in future. That view is changing. The most recent figures suggest that Tuvalu's sea levels have risen nearly three times as fast as the world average over the past decade, and are now 5cm higher than in 1993.

The NTF's Bill Mitchell says that such figures should still be regarded as provisional.

"We've had a large El Nino which appears to have raised sea levels across the western Pacific, so rises in future may well not be as dramatic," he said.

Tuvaluans are used to seeing islets vanish beneath the waves with cyclones, but their country is likely to become uninhabitable long before the waves finally close over them.

Islanders already drink from rainwater tanks to preserve the atolls' scanty groundwater, but the seepage of salt water into farmland has destroyed crops and made islanders dependent on canned imports.

Eleniu Poulos, president of Uniting Justice Australia, a church agency, says that the Tuvaluans should be granted one of the uninhabited islands at the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef.

"You spell an end to a culture if you split them up, but they would be happy to give up their national sovereignty as long as they're able to stay together. Australia has no shortage of land," she said.

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