Global Policy Forum

Tiny Tuvalu Fights for Its Literal Survival


By Stephen Leahy

Inter Press Service
July 27, 2007

The second smallest nation on Earth hopes to turn itself into an example of sustainable development that others can emulate.

But the South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu and its 10,500 people may only have 50 years or less to set that example before it is swept away by rising sea levels due to climate change. "Construction of the first ever biogas digestor on a coral island is complete," said Gilliane Le Gallic, president of Alofa Tuvalu, a Paris-based group that is working with the local Tuvaluan government. Located on a small islet near Tuvalu's capital of Funafuti, the biogas digester uses manure from about 60 pigs to produce gas for cooking stoves. More importantly, more than 40 Tuvaluans have been trained at the newly opened Tuvalu National Training Centre on renewable energy.

"We are trying to create simple, workable models of sustainable development that can be reproduced by others elsewhere," Le Gallic, a documentary filmmaker, told IPS from Paris. After working on the film "Trouble in Paradise", which documented Tuvalu's plight as the first nation destined to be wiped out by climate change, Le Gallic felt she had to get involved in finding solutions. In 2004, she and some partners developed "Small Is Beautiful", a decade-long plan to assist Tuvaluans in surviving as a nation, and if possible, to allow them to remain on their ancestral land.

Both the local government and people are strong supporters of the plan and want to "become a model of an environmentally respectful nation", she said. "I think Tuvalu can be a powerful symbol and example to the world." A former British colony, Tuvalu is comprised of nine coral islands topped by dense tropical vegetation covering about 26 sq kilometres in area. It is one of the world's lowest lying nations, with less than four metres above sea level at its highest point. Last spring, the "king tides" were the highest in memory, swamping many of the islands and hastening erosion and the salt water intrusion that is making soil infertile.

Sea levels have been rising here at twice the average global rate predicted by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And this rise may be accelerating as global temperatures climb. In just the past dozen years, Tuvalu has reported sea level rises of 10 centimetres, according to the South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project. With most Tuvaluans living just one or two metres above sea level, experts say much of the island chain may be underwater in 50 years, and possibly sooner if a major storm strikes. More than 4,000 people have already left the islands to live in New Zealand.

The Tuvaluan government has been vocal in urging industrialised nations to take urgent action on climate change. Enele Sopoaga, the former permanent representative of Tuvalu to the United Nations, in an earlier interview with IPS expressed extreme frustration at "the double standards of industrialised nations" for inaction on climate change while criticising other countries about human rights policies "while they are playing with the lives of island people and the Inuit" -- referring to the native peoples of the Arctic Circle, whose traditional livelihoods are being destroyed by global warming. The newly appointed permanent representative of Tuvalu to the U.N., Afelee Pitacurrent, told IPS from New York City that he did wish to be quoted for this story.

Tuvalu's subsistence economy, which relied on fishing and local gardens, has only recently been shifting to imported food and fuel. Located approximately 1,000 kms north of Fiji, the country is isolated and has nothing to sell to the rest of the world other than the internet domain name ".tv". Human waste and trash have become local environmental problems as there are no treatment or disposal facilities. A second biogas digester using human waste is set to go ahead in Funafuti, says Sarah Hemstock of SH solutions, an environmental scientist specialising in biomass. "There is nothing lower tech than turning human and animal wastes into gas," said Hemstock, who is a consultant for the Imperial College Centre for Energy Policy and Technology in London, England.

Hemstock says she has brought some of the lessons learned from rural development projects initiated by the British-based Cusichaca Trust over the past 25 years in Peru. "New tools have to fit in with the local culture, and skill training and demonstration centres for the local people are crucial," Hemstock told IPS. It takes decades to integrate new technologies into a local community, she said. Twenty years ago, Tuvalu had a pioneering solar energy project that worked for about 12 years but hasn't been operational since. The local people did not have the resources or skills to maintain it, and when some of the equipment needed repairs or replacement parts, it was abandoned, she said. "Tuvalu will always need some outside help," Hemstock noted.

Although it is likely to become the first nation of environmental refugees, because Tuvalu has virtually no greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy projects there do not qualify for Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) funding. CDM is a market mechanism created by the Kyoto Protocol that allows polluters in one country to earn "carbon credits" by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in another. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on CDM projects around the world, but not a penny for Tuvalu, said Hemstock, who found this situation "appalling". Environmental awareness on the island has increased dramatically and the people have been "fantastic and enthusiastic" participants in the first steps of the "Small is Beautiful" plan, she says.

Community-wide trash clean-ups have been done and a biodiesel project using copra (coconut palm) is set to begin this fall. Seeds and horticultural training are ongoing to help reduce dependence on imported foods. New solar streetlights, composting toilets and wind projects are also being planned. Implementing the entire 10-year plan will cost less than 9 million dollars, Hemstock said. "If a sustainable, environmentally respectful society can't be created here, it can't be done anywhere," she concluded.

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