What Happens When Your Country Drowns?
Meet the people of Tuvalu, the world's first climate refugees.
— By Rachel Morris, a native of New Zealand now living in the USA
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December 2009 Issue
IT'S A BRIGHT, BALMY SUNDAY afternoon and I'm driving through the
western outskirts of Auckland, New Zealand, the kind of place you
never see on a postcard. No majestic mountains, no improbably green
pastures—just a bland tangle of shopping malls and suburbia. I follow
a dead-end street, past a rubber plant, a roofing company, a drainage
service, and a plastics manufacturer, until I reach a white building
behind a chain-link fence. Inside is a kernel of a nation within a
nation—a sneak preview of what a climate change exodus looks like.
This is the Tuvalu Christian Church, the heart of a migrant community
from what may be the first country to be rendered unlivable by global
warming. Tuvalu is the fourth-smallest nation on Earth: six coral
atolls and three reef islands flung across 500,000 square miles of
ocean, about halfway between Australia and Hawaii. It has few natural
resources to export and no economy to speak of; its gross domestic
product relies heavily on the sale of its desirable Internet domain
suffix, which is .tv, and a modest trade in collectible stamps.
Tuvalu's total land area is just 16 square miles, of which the highest
point stands 16 feet above the waterline. Tuvaluans, who have a high
per-capita incidence of good humor, refer to the spot as "Mount
Howard," after the former Australian prime minister who refused to
ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that
low-lying island nations are particularly endangered by rising seas
and will also be buffeted by more frequent and more violent storms.
Already, warmer ocean temperatures are eating away at the coral reefs
that form Tuvalu's archipelagic spine. Tuvaluans themselves point to
more tangible indicators of trouble—the "king tides" that increasingly
sluice their homes, the briny water oozing up into the "grow pits"
where they used to cultivate taro and other vegetables. As Julia
Whitty predicted in this magazine in 2003, the prognosis has become
sufficiently dire that the residents of Tuvalu and other low-lying
atoll islands "are beginning to envision the wholesale abandonment of
their nations." Around one-fifth of the 12,000-some inhabitants have
already left, most bound for New Zealand, where the Tuvaluan community
has nearly tripled since 1996.
Inside the church I find a vibrant scene, suggesting both the
resilience of Tuvaluan culture and its ability to adapt. Rows of green
plastic chairs are filled with several hundred chattering churchgoers,
some in traditional lavalavas—vivid cotton skirts emblazoned with
flowers—others in Western dresses and suits. A border of bright blue,
yellow, and pink stars rings the upper walls—in Tuvalu these might be
constructed from frangipani blossoms, but here they are woven from the
plastic bands used to tether shipping cargo. As soon as I sit down, a
young man in a dapper dark suit strikes up a conversation. He came
here in 1997, is making good money, and hasn't been home once. "You
may have heard the news about Tuvalu—with global warming, the sea is
rising," he says cheerfully. "So better we come here to be safe."
Tuvaluans, resigned to fielding reporters' questions about their
homeland's impending doom, often offer observations like this
The tiny island of Tepuka Savilivili is among those most at risk of
After the service, the congregation drifts outside to the gravelly
yard, where a group of visitors from the islands is reenacting the
crucifixion of Christ on a makeshift stage draped with threadbare
astroturf. Reverend Elisala Selu, a thoughtful, soft-spoken man who
has worked second jobs to avoid burdening his congregants, explains
that Tuvaluan politicians are reluctant to encourage the mass
evacuation of their voting base, and so the church, wanting people to
be prepared, has taken matters into its own hands. It instructs
followers not to assume that, like Noah, they will be delivered by God
from the rising waters, and hosts groups of congregants who visit New
Zealand to see if they might like to relocate here. But, Selu
confides, life in New Zealand isn't always easy. The Tuvaluans are one
of the country's poorest communities. Just over half the adults have
found work; the median income is about $17,000 for men, $10,000 for
women. There are those here illegally—overstayers, in Pacific
parlance—who struggle to make ends meet; Tuvaluans on the run from
debt collectors after buying cars on shady financing schemes; children
left unattended for long hours because their parents work multiple
jobs as cleaners or laborers or farmworkers. Then there's the jarring
adjustment to urban Auckland from a place where most citizens don't
pay rent or buy food, but sleep on grass mats beside the road on warm
nights, go fishing or pick breadfruit when they're hungry, and where,
as one jovial Tuvaluan remarked to me, "the only crime is cycling in
the night without a torch [flashlight]." Selu frets about the new
generation of Tuvaluan children born in New Zealand. "We try to run
away from the sea rise in Tuvalu, but this is another sea-level rise,"
he says with a wry smile. "The next generation gets caught by two
cultures. Before Tuvalu sinks physically, our identity might sink in a
Tuvalu and other low-lying island countries like Kiribati and the
Maldives are, in one sense, the starkest example of how climate change
will reshape the world. But Auckland's Tuvaluan community also
represents a best-case scenario—so far their migration has been
orderly, and their numbers are minuscule compared with the millions of
impoverished people who live in global warming hot spots like Africa's
Sahel, coastal Bangladesh, and Vietnam's deltas. Koko Warner, an
expert on climate change and migration at the United Nations
University in Bonn, says the displacement of those populations could
be "a phenomenon of a scope not experienced in human history."
Yet little has been done to prepare. In fact, our understanding of
exactly how global warming will affect people—how many lives will be
threatened, and what we could do to avert a succession of humanitarian
disasters—remains extremely rudimentary. As Bill Gates has caustically
observed, "It is interesting how often the impact of climate change is
illustrated by talking about the problems the polar bears will face
rather than the much greater number of poor people who will die unless
significant investments are made to help them."
IN JUNE, I TRAVELED to the verdant, secluded campus of Columbia
University's Earth Institute, near the New York Palisades, to find out
how global warming will reconfigure the world's political geography.
Earth Institute scientists, along with researchers from the United
Nations University, have conducted a global study to chart how
environmental change will affect vulnerable populations.
Alex de Sherbinin, one of the project's lead researchers, explained
that the investigation was prompted by the realization that existing
data about how many people could be uprooted by climate change had
been "essentially grabbed from thin air." The most commonly cited
factoid, which pops up even in authoritative sources like the British
government's Stern Review on climate change, predicts 200 million
"environmental refugees" by 2050—1 in every 34 people on Earth. But
even the scholar who produced that number—Norman Myers, an Oxford
ecologist—concedes that it required some "heroic extrapolations." None
of the existing figures uses a vetted scientific methodology, and most
rely instead on crude estimations, like choosing the most sensitive
regions and assuming that every single inhabitant will have to leave.
De Sherbinin's project takes a more fine-grained approach. "We found
that livelihood would be the main factor in how people decide to stay
or go," he explained. The aim is to connect hard scientific data about
glacier melt, precipitation, drought, and sea rise with knowledge of
how people interact with their environment, obtained through extensive
field interviews. The fieldwork is used to figure out whether there
are ways to help, say, a farmer remain on his land as rainfall
declines, or whether he will need to relocate to survive.
De Sherbinin gave me a quick tour of the world's prospective disaster
zones by way of his laptop. He brought up a map of Tuvalu's main
island of Funafuti, rendered in such detail that you could see which
houses will be submerged if the sea rises by three feet. Then, the
Ganges delta region of Bangladesh and India, home to 144 million
people. Variegated red patches indicated population
density—overlapping some of the deepest red spots were blue blotches
marking the places most likely to be lost to flooding. Next: Vietnam,
which de Sherbinin says is likely to lose more agricultural land
(especially in the Mekong delta) to sea-level rise than any other
country. Blue streaks—signifying a 6.6-foot rise—on the high end of
what scientists think is possible—erased land inhabited by 14 million
people. Finally, a map of the Sahel region of West Africa, where
nearly half the population survives on subsistence farming, and where
rainfall is projected to decline severely. Overall, the number of
Africans facing water shortages is expected to double by 2050.
"For a lot of these places, prospects don't look too good—I don't want
to suggest easy solutions," de Sherbinin said. But some people, he
argued, have options. In Africa, he pointed out, while desertification
is a grave problem, much of the continent lacks water capture and
storage systems. "There's a potential to do much more. If these
countries had the wherewithal—most of them don't—they could develop in
I heard a similar argument from Paul Kench, a geomorphologist at the
University of Auckland and an expert on atoll islands. Kench looked
like someone who spends a lot of time on beaches—shorts, sandals,
sandy hair, golden tan. He argued that many climate scientists draw
overly broad conclusions from abstract data about sea-level rise
without observing the precise ways that oceanic change affects
particular places. Like many New Zealanders, he has a relentlessly
practical streak, and he insisted that many residents of Tuvalu and
other imperiled countries could actually stay put, if only people
would pay proper attention to the science.
Using data from Tuvalu, the Maldives, and Kiribati, Kench and his
coauthor, Peter Cowell, are creating computer models visualizing what
will happen as the sea rises. "What we've been unable to do is totally
destroy an island," he said. Instead, he explained, as waves wash over
these narrow slivers of land, they reshape their contours. On some
islands, rising seas lifted sand from the beach and deposited it
farther inland, steepening the island's plane and raising its highest
point. In Tuvalu, storms shaved rubble off the reefs and welded it to
nearby islands, building new outer layers "like onion skins." On other
islands, seasonal tides shuffled sand from one side to another, so
that in January the eastern part of the island might grow, only to
recede in July as the western side extended.
Kench argued that in many Pacific atoll nations, people are clustered
densely in the islands' most fragile places (in turn creating man-made
environmental strains that amplify the effects of climate change).
"With some careful planning, you could identify safe places to live.
You could identify islands more sensitive to change than others, ones
that can take more people than others. There's lots of quite sensible
things we could do." The Maldives has invited Kench to research such
possibilities. (Keeping its options open, the government is also
considering buying land in Australia.) Right now, Kench said, in most
low-lying island nations there's almost "no information to base
decisions on"—even on basic questions like the relationship of
valuable resources to the waterline. "That reads like stamp
collecting—cataloging environmental resources and processes. But it
gives you great power to make sensible decisions."
Kench's vision was appealing—the idea of a people joining hands with
science and orienting their lives even more intimately around the
rhythms of their environment. But it was hard to envision anyone
enacting the kind of exquisitely calibrated resettlement plan that he
had in mind—either local governments, starved for cash and expertise,
or institutions like the World Bank, which tends to react to
environmental fragility by pouring concrete. And redistributing
Tuvalu's population more wisely couldn't safeguard against the
projected increase of ferocious storms, the erosion of coral, or
salinization of the islands' scarce arable soil.
Yet because a certain amount of environmental change is locked in no
matter what negotiators at Copenhagen decide, Kench's type of thinking
is sorely needed. Thomas Fingar, the former chairman of the National
Intelligence Council, conducted an assessment of the national security
implications of climate change in 2008. "The international system
needs to think about this, whether it's prepositioning water, tents,
and so on, developing assistance programs," Fingar told me. Instead,
he noted drily, when he delivered his analysis to the House committees
on intelligence and global warming, it got "overshadowed by a debate
over whether this topic was incredibly important or incredibly
stupid." He added, "Shouldn't we start thinking about coping
strategies? Stop ringing the damn alarm bell and go buy some buckets."
The Obama administration is turning to these questions, but it's
playing catch-up for years of lost time.
Next Page: When does a nation cease to be a nation?
Rachel Morris is the articles editor in Mother Jones'
Washington bureau. She was born and grew up in New Zealand.