The 50th meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum met in Tuvalu on 13th – 16th August 2019. During the meetings a declaration was produced on the climate change crisis. Australian PM, Scott Morrison, and his parliament had been working to dilute the language in the declaration; they succeeded in removing the word “crisis”, as well as removing all but one reference to coal. Tuvalu’s Prime Minister, Enele Sopoaga, said that it looked as if Pacific leaders would not be successful in getting the language of “climate change crisis” into the declaration, with the words “climate change reality” being substituted.
Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, (centre) at the Pacific Islands Forum
Pacific leaders have been strident in their calls for urgent action on the climate crisis at the forum in Tuvalu, one of the countries most at risk due to climate change. It is affected by rising temperatures as well as rising sea levels, erosion, tide inundations and salinity in the water table that makes growing food very difficult. Many on the islands believe their country will be submerged within their lifetimes, forcing them to leave.
On Monday, the Fijian prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, called for Australia “to do everything possible to achieve a rapid transition from coal to energy sources that do not contribute to climate change”, saying coal posed an “existential threat” to Pacific islands.
“Watered-down climate language has real consequences,” said Bainimarama, “like water-logged homes, schools, communities, and ancestral burial grounds.”
After a joint press conference, Enele Sopoaga said he had told the Australian prime minister during the retreat: “You are concerned about saving your economies, your situation in Australia, I’m concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu and likewise other leaders of small island countries.”
Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was similarly critical of the declaration’s stymied content.
It was reported that the Prime Minister of Tonga had cried at the retreat while talking about two young women who had presented to leaders on Monday about the impacts of the climate crisis in Tonga.
Further information about the plight of many Pacific Island groups can be found in another blog on this site entitled: “The effects of rising sea levels on island nations”.
The nine islands of Tuvalu are located in the middle of the Pacific. Funafuti, the main island and capital, is at 1000 km North of Fiji. Tuvalu became, notably thanks to the climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, the international symbol of the consequences of climate change. Sea-level rise, one of the most known consequences, is a major threat for Tuvalu, considering that this country’s highest point is 4,5 meters over sea-level (whereas most of the land is way below that point). The consequences of climate change will have and already have considerable impacts on these islands.
In the National Adaptation Programme of Actions (NAPA), the government of Tuvalu has identified seven main and immediate threats for the livelihoods of Tuvaluans. These seven adverse effects are presented here:
Coastal: Following the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sea-level has already risen by 20 centimetres between 1870 and nowadays. Considering the low-lying position of Tuvalu, this trend is going to dangerously affect the islands. The objective of the government is to increase the resilience of coastal areas and settlement to climate change.
Agricultural: Due to sea-level rise, the ground of Tuvalu is prone to increasing salinization, threatening the habitats of some plants, such as pulaka and coconut trees. Considering that Pulaka traditionally is the staple food in Tuvalu, the adaptation strategy is to introduce salt-tolerant pulaka.
Water: The islands of Tuvalu have progressively lost their fresh groundwater resources, not only due to sea-level rise, but also because of human pollution. In consequence, Tuvaluans only rely on rainwater storage to meet their needs. However, the seasons on Tuvalu are getting irregular and difficult to forecast, leading to droughts and water shortage. In order to ameliorate this situation, the adaptation plan recommends improved and increased water collection and water conservation techniques.
Health: Vectors breeding grounds will have an increasing availability in the next years and decades because of higher tides, inundations and tropical cyclones. The increased availability will exacerbate the exposure of the Tuvaluans to water borne diseases and will increase the epidemic potential of the islands.
Fisheries: Climate change, heating the ocean water, impacts the corals and consequently the marine fauna. The biodiversity of the ocean, and also, in the case of Tuvalu, of the atolls will decrease. In order to prevent this irreparable lost of species due to heat, fragile ecosystems have to be protected.
Fisheries: The biodiversity of the atoll and particularly in the shallower water in the lagoon, will not be the only affected by the impacts of the rising surface water temperature. The rising temperatures will also considerably reduce the shellfish and available fish resources. Considering that the Tuvaluans, on average, eat 500 grams of fish per capita every day, a reduction of the resource will have a disastrous impact of the livelihoods and, thus, also on development.
Disaster: Tuvalu has been increasingly exposed to tropical storms and cyclones since 1990. Between 1970 and 1990, only three tropical storms, hurricanes or cyclones struck Tuvalu. However, between 1990 and 2005, the islands experienced thirteen similar meteorological events. In order to ease the impacts of the population, the country will have to implement disaster alerts and response systems.
These different threats that Tuvalu is or will be experiencing in the next years or decades are similar to all Small Island Developing States.