The country that’s washing away


By Jem Smith
If you should ever use Google, Bing, or nearly any other search engine to search for the least visited country in the world, most if not all of the responses would include the small island country of Tuvalu at the top of the list. It sits in the South Pacific and is an independent Polynesian island nation within the British Commonwealth. Located midway between Hawaii and Australia, it is comprised of nine islands which house thinly populated atolls, reef islands, and World War II (WWII) sites. It is one of the most isolated countries in the world, with a sparse population of 11,508, according to the World Bank as recently as 2018, and spans an area of only around 25.9 square kilometers. By these pieces of data, Belize’s population is more than thirty-five times larger, with 408,487 inhabitants, and with an area of 22,965 square kilometers, more than 800 times larger. Regardless, the tiny country offers just as pristine and calm waters as Belize which are often times used for diving and snorkeling among tropical fish. Despite its beauty, friendly people, and plentiful tourism destinations, Tuvalu still only sees around 2,000 annual visitors. But the intention of this article is not to garner tourists and to highlight the naturally occurring beauty of the island, but to bring awareness to a more serious issue: climate change.
Before leaving whatever search engine you had opted to use in the first line of this story, simply search “Tuvalu.” For me, I used Google, the second link reads: “‘One day well disappear’: Tuvalu’s sinking islands” from the British newspaper, The Guardian. Rising sea levels brought on by global warming and climate change are on the verge of submerging two of the country’s nine islands according to the government. For residents of the other inhabited islands, the waves pose a threat to their daily lives and future and it is an unfortunate reality that the people of Tuvalu are having to endure. It might sound like an oxymoron but the certain uncertainty of the world’s fourth smallest nation in the world being swallowed up at some time in the future is all too real. The local catch-phrase is “Tuvalu is sinking” and The Guardian quotes one of the resident’s chilling statement, “Before, the sand used to stretch out far, and when we swam we could see the sea floor, and the coral. Now, it is cloudy all the time, and the coral is dead. Tuvalu is sinking.”
Sea rise and coastal erosion which have washed away several feet of beach area accounts for the “swallowing” of these islands, a term used widely by Tuvaluans. Global warming and the recent changes in climate particularly threaten Tuvalu especially since most of the islands sit no more than seven feet above sea level. The highest point in the entire area is only fifteen feet above sea level. As a result, the locals live with in a nightmare that their entire country will soon be completely submerged as soon as the next generation. According to the Guardian’s article, “Scientists predict Tuvalu could become uninhabitable in the next 50 to 100 years. Locals say they feel it could be much sooner.” Many non-believers of climate change, residents of Tuvalu, have now become convinced of the science and evidence which dictate their daily lives. Imagine, an entire country on the brink of extinction because of the contributions of man from other countries. The burning of fossil fuels and other actions which lead to an abundance of greenhouse gases and the warming of the atmosphere contribute to the complete wiping away of a country. Scholarly articles dictate that unlike other current or future environmental catastrophes, Tuvalu’s problem is one that people around the world are responsible for by the burning of these fossil fuels which release carbon dioxide into the air, trapping in heat and leading to global warming. Also because of the very real effects of climate change, cyclone and other tropical storms have worsened for decades and they now experience the phenomenon of freak waves. Still, they began to face a problem of drought until the 1990s when water started to come from out of the ground. First, it was just small puddles and now, it seems the entire sea is coming from down under, and the islands are washing away.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) classifies Tuvalu as a resource poor, “least-developed country”, that is “extremely vulnerable” to the effects of climate change. Porous, salty soil has made the ground almost totally useless for planting, destroying staple crops and decreasing the yields of various fruits and vegetables. Starchy Pacific Island staples such as taro and cassava now have to be imported at great expense, along with most other food. Since the rising ocean contaminated underwater ground supplies, Tuvalu is now totally reliant on rainwater, and droughts are occurring with alarming frequency. Even if the locals could plant successfully, there is now not enough rain to keep even simple kitchen gardens alive. Tuvalu is in serious trouble, and trouble which becomes increasingly more difficult to live with by the hour.
However, by air, Tuvalu sits 10,676 kilometers away from Belize, so what can we do about it, and what does that have to do with us? The people and government of Tuvalu have cried out for the “rest of the world” to act immediately and together to cut down on its use and production of greenhouse gases. By the “rest of the world” they are generally speaking about the United States of America (USA) and Australia, the world’s largest overall and highest per capita producers, respectively, of greenhouse gases—and the only developed countries that declined to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which calls for gradually reducing emissions of those gases. The USA only accounts of a small percentage of the world’s population but uses around 25% of the world’s resources and, as a result, contribute greatly toward climate change. While in Belize we do not account for nearly as much of these ill effects, we must realize that what we do here is just as impactful. It might not directly impact the people of Tuvalu, but it does certainly impact us here. The habit of leaving lights on around our homes, driving to go a few streets away, and running fans and air conditioners are all things which some of us practice. I myself am guilty of driving to work just about every day when I live only an eight minute walk from my job site. We just need to think of the very little, every day things that we can do. Not just for the people and country of Tuvalu, nor anyone else, but for us as well. We can one day begin to realize the very, very real effects of global warming and climate change ourselves. It is not a reality I would want to wish on any country or people but like my mother always says, “prevention is better than cure.” Begin to consider how we can make a difference which will extend from Belize to across the world.