Delegation from a country that is symbol of the existential threat posed by climate change unveils its “extreme” adaptation plan in Dubai and firmly calls for stronger mitigation action.
By Lavinia Laiti
Before moving to Tuvalu Naomi Maheu grew up in the Philippines; she then studied in New Zealand for a few years, but chose to return and now works for the Tuvalu Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As she shows a 3-D reconstruction of Funafuti atoll, her country’s capital city, and illustrates which areas could be flooded in the future, depending on different sea level rise scenarios, she says, “I have lived in other places and they surely have more resources and more opportunities, but Tuvalu is my home and it’s where I want to live.”
Tuvalu is a Polynesian nation consisting of 9 atolls, halfway between the Hawaiian Islands and Australia in the Pacific Ocean. With an area of only 26 km², it is the fourth smallest country in the world. The land’s maximum elevation is only 4.5 m above sea level, making it particularly vulnerable to sea level rise caused by climate change, especially at high tide.
In the worst-case scenario, that is, if global greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, by 2050 50% of the capital city will be inundated by daily flooding, and by the end of the century 95% of the territory will be. The risk, then, is the complete loss of Tuvalu, accompanied by the forced migration of its inhabitants, making this small country a symbol of the extreme consequences of climate change impacts and what the term “loss & damage” means, despite its virtually zero historical responsibility in terms of its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.
During the COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, the bitter provocation of Tuvalu’s then Minister Simon Kofe, who in a video message spoke to the international community in front of microphones and flags in a suit and tie but with his pants rolled up and his feet dipped in the sea, gained much visibility, denouncing the consequences of climate inaction and the common fate of the small Pacific island states.
In a second video message, a year later at COP27, Kofe even talked about creating a digital twin of Tuvalu as extrema ratio: “As our land disappears, we have no choice but to become the world’s first digital nation. Our land, our ocean, our culture, are the most precious assets of our people. And to keep them safe from harm, no matter what happens in the physical world, we’ll move them to the cloud. Piece by piece, we’ll preserve our country, provide solace to our people, and remind our children and our grandchildren what our home once was.”
The government of Tuvalu presented for the first time at COP27 its new Long-Term Adaptation Plan, developed with the support of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and known in the Tuvarian language as “Te Lafiga o Tuvalu,” or the “Shelter of Tuvalu.” Adaptation actions under the Plan include the reclamation of a raised area of about 4 km2 in the main Funafuti atoll, where people and key infrastructure will be gradually relocated, as well as interventions for sustainable water supply, enhanced food and energy security, and increased resilience to floods and storms. The coastal consolidation and extension project, with preliminary studies expected to be completed in 2024, is expected to be funded by the Green Climate Fund, the fund created by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to finance transformative climate action in developing countries, as well as by the governments of Tuvalu and Australia. This is the first technically feasible, science-based national adaptation plan consistent with projections of sea level rise by 2100.
“About 6.000 people live in Funafuti” Naomi further explains, “about half of the total population, whose houses are concentrated on one side of the airport runway that runs through the entire island. The traditional knowledge of the locals gains evidence from the fact that the historically most populated area remains drier, while the surrounding areas are increasingly prone to flooding and coastal erosion. While waiting for the full implementation of the Long-Term Adaptation Plan, the Tuvalu government has already reclaimed more than 7 hectares of new raised sandy soil just in front of this area, thanks to the support of the UNDP and of an Australian engineering company.
Indeed, the Tuvaluan are not climate inactive at all! As the slogan of one of their demonstrations at COP28 in Dubai reads: “We are not drowning, we are fighting”. The participation of the Tuvaluan delegation at COP28 is intended to reiterate the call for more ambitious and stronger global mitigation action and, at the same time, to present to the world the adaptation strategies outlined in the Plan, which was described on December 6 at the pavilion of the Global Center for Climate Mobility, a UN-sponsored partnership to address the problem of migration and abandonment of countries of origin due to the impacts of the climate crisis.
The last question to Naomi concerns the very recent news of an agreement with Australia, which is expected to grant “climate asylum” to those leaving Tuvalu. “The negotiations are only at an early stage and the agreement has not yet been officially ratified,” she points out. “The choice of emigration in the future will be purely individual, and initially no more than 280 people per year will be accepted in Australia anyway.” Some Tuvaluans are already testing this option, spending short working periods in New Zealand and Australia, but she, and many of her compatriots, now hope that they will be able to live for a long time in what is their home, thanks to this ambitious but very concrete plan.