One of the smallest nations in the world, Tuvalu is home to some 11,000 people, most of whom live on a single island cramped for space.
Two of its nine islands are close to being submerged by the restless Pacific, swallowed by sea-rise and coastal erosion.
Tuvalu is a resource poor country that is extremely vulnerable to the effects of the current climate crisis. Porous, salty soil has made planting almost useless, destroying the staple pulaka (swamp tyaro) crop and decreasing yields of fruits and vegetables.
Ever since the rising ocean contaminated underwater ground supplies, Tuvalu has been totally reliant on rainwater, and droughts are occurring with alarming frequency. Even if the locals could plant successfully, there is not enough rain to keep even simple kitchen gardens alive.
Fish too are suspect. The ciguatera toxin has poisoned reef fish who have ingested micro-algaes expelled by bleached coral. When people eat the fish, it causes an immediate and sometimes severe illness: vomiting, fever, and diarrhoea.
Other climate-related illnesses now include influenza, fungal diseases, conjunctivitis, and dengue fever. Higher daily temperatures are also putting people at daily risk of dehydration, heatstroke, and heat rashes.
The biggest impacts of the climate crisis have been rising air temperatures, more intense and frequent storm surges and decreasing rainfall, as well as the total inundation of low-lying coastal parts of the main island – including, sometimes, the country’s lifeline, its runway.
Plans for adapting to climate change include the ongoing – and much delayed – construction of a sea wall to protect the administrative centre of the capital. There are also plans to dredge and reclaim land, raise land 10 metres above sea level, and build high-density housing. It would cost US$300m that so far has no funding.
Other options include constructing a floating island (like Venice) and importing refuse from Australian mines to build an energy wall to ring the atolls, breaking up the power of the sea as it heads towards the islands.
Evacuating Tuvalu is seen as a last resort, despite frequent speculation that Tuvaluans will become the world’s first climate-crisis refugees. But it may happen if all else fails.
The Italian city of Venice, of course, is also under threat of disappearing beneath the Mediterranean Sea. But the difference there is that historical and artistic heritage are privileging massive investment in rescue and survival which are simply not available to Tuvalu. In Venice it is artefacts that are at stake. In Tuvalu it is people’s lives.