Country Water Actions

Country water actions are stories that showcase water reforms undertaken by individuals, communities, organizations, and governments in Asia-Pacific countries and elsewhere.

Tuvalu: Tiny Tuvalu Fights for Survival
September 2007

Rising sea levels due to climate change can wipe out Tuvalu in half a century. Instead of worrying, however, Tuvalu citizens are doing their share in reducing harmful greenhouse gases to decelerate global warming, and hoping that the international community would notice them before the Pacific Ocean engulfs their tiny island country. “SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL” The world’s second smallest nation hopes to become an example of sustainable development that others can emulate. But the South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu and its 10, 500 people may only have 50 years or less to set that example before it is swept away by rising sea levels due to climate change. “Construction of the first ever biogas digester on a coral island is complete,” said Gilliane Le Gallic, president of Alofa Tuvalu, a Paris-based group that is working with the local Tuvaluan government on creating simple, workable models of sustainable development that can be reproduced elsewhere. Located on a small islet near Tuvalu’s capital of Funafuti, the biogas digester uses manure from about 60 pigs to produce gas for cooking stoves, which helps decrease greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change. More than 40 Tuvaluans have also been trained at the newly opened Tuvalu National Training Center on renewable energy. In 2004, Le Gallic and some partners developed “Small Is Beautiful,” a decade-long plan that would assist Tuvaluans in surviving as a nation, and if possible, allow them to remain on their ancestral land. The biogas digester is part of this plan. Inspiration came after Le Gallic, also a documentary filmmaker, worked on a film “Trouble in Paradise,” which documented Tuvalu's plight as the first nation destined to be wiped out by climate change. Le Gallic felt she had to get involved in finding solutions. Both the local government and people are strong supporters of the plan and want to “become a model of an environmentally respectful nation,” Le Gallic said. “I think Tuvalu can be a powerful symbol and example to the world.”

FACING THE FORCES OF NATURE A former British colony, Tuvalu is comprised of nine coral islands topped by dense tropical vegetation covering about 26 square kilometers. It is one of the world’s lowest lying nations, with less than four meters above sea level at its highest point. Last spring, the “king tides” were the highest in memory, swamping many of the islands, and hastening erosion and salt water intrusion that is making soil infertile. Sea levels have been rising in Tuvulu at twice the average global rate predicted by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And this rise may be accelerating as global temperatures climb. In just the past dozen years, Tuvalu has reported sea level rises of 10 centimeters, according to the South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project. With most Tuvaluans living just one or two meters above sea level, experts say much of the island chain may be underwater in 50 years, and possibly sooner if a major storm strikes. More than 4,000 people have already left the islands to live in New Zealand. The Tuvaluan government has been vocal in urging industrialized nations to take urgent action on climate change. Enele Sopoaga, the former permanent representative of Tuvalu to the United Nations, expressed extreme frustration at “the double standards of industrialized nations” for inaction on climate change while criticizing other countries about human rights policies, “while they are playing with the lives of island people and the Inuit”—referring to the native peoples of the Arctic Circle, whose traditional livelihoods are being destroyed by global warming. Tuvalu’s subsistence economy, which relied on fishing and local gardens, has only recently been shifting to imported food and fuel. Located approximately 1,000 kilometers north of Fiji, the country is isolated and has minimal exports, the most prominent being its internet country suffix that can be sold to anyone wanting their websites to end with “.tv.” Human waste and trash have become local environmental problems as there are no treatment or disposal facilities.

NO CARBON CREDITS “A second biogas digester using human waste is set to go ahead in Funafuti,” said Sarah Hemstock, an environmental scientist specializing in biomass. “There is nothing lower tech than turning human and animal wastes into gas,” she added. But it will be unlikely that such a project will earn Tuvalu brownie points from the international funding community. Because Tuvalu has virtually no greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy projects in the country do not qualify for Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) funding. CDM is a market mechanism created by the Kyoto Protocol that allows polluters in one country to earn “carbon credits” by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in another. “Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on CDM projects around the world, but not a penny for Tuvalu,” said Hemstock. Twenty years ago, Tuvalu had a pioneering solar energy project that worked for about 12 years but has not been operational since. The local people did not have the resources or skills to maintain it, and when some of the equipment needed repairs or replacement parts, it was abandoned. “Tuvalu will always need some outside help,” Hemstock noted. And without this help, Tuvalu will likely be the first nation of environmental refugees.

RACING AGAINST TIME Despite the setbacks, environmental awareness on the island has increased dramatically and the people have been “fantastic and enthusiastic” participants in the first steps of the “Small is Beautiful” plan. Community-wide trash clean-ups have been done and a biodiesel project using copra (coconut palm) is set to begin this fall. Seeds and horticultural training are ongoing to help reduce dependence on imported foods. New solar streetlights, composting toilets, and wind projects are also being planned. Implementing the entire 10-year plan will cost almost US$9M, and the clamor for international funding will continue. But “if a sustainable, environmentally respectful society can’t be created here, it can’t be done anywhere,” Hemstock concluded.

_______________________________ Based on the article of Stephen Leahy, Asia Water Wire journalist The views expressed in this article are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), or its Board of Governors, or the governments they represent. ADB does not guarantee the accuracy of the data included in this paper and accepts no responsibility for any consequence of their use. Terminology used may not necessarily be consistent with ADB official terms.

*This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in September 2007: http://www.adb.org/Water/Actions/TUV/Tiny-Tuvalu-Fights-forSurvival.asp. The Country Water Action series was developed to showcase reforms and good practices in the water sector undertaken by ADB’s member countries. It offers a mix of experience and insights from projects funded by ADB and those undertaken directly by civil society, local governments, the private sector, media, and the academe. The Country Water Actions are regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.

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