Trouble in Tuvalu

Sinking nation

Trouble in  Tuvalu

Tuvalu, a tiny cluster of nine coral atolls and islands about halfway between Australia and Hawaii in the South Pacific, is one of the smallest countries on the planet. Data suggests that global sea levels could rise by as much as 140 cm by 2100, which, when combined with damage to the coral roots of Tuvalu by rising acidity in seawater, could threaten the country’s very existence, writes Matt Siegel.

The sun is setting over the Pacific islet, casting the isolated lagoon in brilliant shades of red, orange and topaz. Towering palm trees sway slowly in the warm tropical breeze. Out in the distance, fishermen in a small boat slowly troll the coral atolls for reef fish, much as the people of Tuvalu have done for hundreds of years or more. But none of these things are what hit you first about this neighborhood on the edge of the water. What hits you first is the smell. Household garbage mingles with wastes both human and animal in open pits that, when filled with seawater during high tide, turn into a fetid soup under the blistering sun. It is in one of the dozens of precariously balanced stilt houses over those pits that Kalalisa Uilese lives with her husband and three children.

“There’s not enough land,” Uilese, 47, said matter-of-factly inside her dark, makeshift living room. “That’s why we build our houses on them.” Tuvalu, a tiny cluster of nine coral atolls and islands about halfway between Australia and Hawaii in the South Pacific, is one of the smallest countries on the planet, and many scientists say it is getting smaller. Its population of fewer than 12,000 people inhabits a landmass of 26 sq km, or 10 sq m, about a third the size of Manhattan. On Funafuti, the main atoll and Tuvalu’s capital, the widest point between the lagoon around which the town spreads and the ocean beyond is just half a kilometer.

The lowest point is just above sea level, a spot from which you can be tricked into thinking that you are somehow standing below the vast Pacific, looking up rather than out into it.

Seawater acidity

Then there is coastal erosion, a result of rising water and harsh weather but also human activities like excavation for construction and other development projects.

During World War II, as fighting between the United States and Japan raged across the Pacific, the British government granted the US military the use of its colony on what is now Tuvalu but was then known as the Ellice Islands.

Massive antiaircraft guns, the concrete base of at least one of which still stands a lonely vigil in the surf, were quickly erected. But for the islands to reach their full wartime potential, they needed an airstrip. Large quantities of coral were dug up and carted off to be crushed and mixed for the tarmac. The gaping pits that were left behind across Funafuti, called “borrow pits,” were never filled and eventually began to be used for refuse.

Add to this the doubling of Tuvalu’s population since 1980, and it is easy to understand why, as usable land dwindled, homes like Uilese’s started to stretch across the pits.

The government of Tuvalu, which survives on a combination of foreign aid and dividends from the sale in 1998 of the .tv Internet domain name, has repeatedly asked the US government for assistance in refilling the borrow pits. In 2003, the US Army Corps of Engineers carried out a site assessment and cost study at the behest of the State Department. The 152-page report acknowledged the provenance of the pits and starkly identified their cost to the island.

“Solid waste disposal sites surrounding residential homes and animals have developed into a health hazard for nearby residents,” the report said. “An engineered solid waste landfill site and management plan needs to be implemented for the safety of the people and longevity of the island.” Three options for refilling the pits were considered in the document, ranging in cost from $14,950 to $28.5 million, but the issue has gone no further. Tuvalu, which has an annual gross domestic product of about $35 million, says it is ill-equipped to act on the report by itself.

The idea of the Americans “filling in the borrow pits as some kind of war reparations is probably stretching it a little bit,” he said. Still, he added, “it is valuable land. If the borrow pits could be filled in, there would be economic value associated with it. It would dramatically improve public health by decreasing water-borne illnesses.”

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