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Tuvalu’s deal with Australia addresses rising sea level

Posted on January 1, 2024

Tuvalu, a low-lying archipelago half way between Australia and Hawaii, could become the first country made uninhabitable because of sea-level rise.

FUNAFUTI, Tuvalu — In her plywood house, perched between the Pacific Ocean and an emerald lagoon, Miloitala Jack dreams of somewhere safe and dry. Somewhere her home won’t shake in ever more frequent and fierce storms. Somewhere that the sea — now just a stone’s throw in either direction — no longer laps at her doorstep during king tides.

The 26-year-old’s dream of escaping moved a step closer to reality last month when tiny Tuvalu struck a deal with Australia that would allow 280 people a year to move there.

At that rate, it would take 40 years for all of Tuvalu’s 11,000 current inhabitants to leave the archipelago, which sits halfway between Hawaii and Australia and covers only 10 square miles. Predictions about sea level rise caused by global warming suggest Tuvalu could become uninhabitable before that.

But the agreement encapsulates the painful choice people here now face: Flee their fragile sliver of sand or stay and fight the rising waters, one sea wall or stretch of reclaimed land at a time.

Miloitala Jack holds her daughter Jeybella. (Michael Miller/The Washington Post)

“As a nation we have come to the shocking realization that we now exist to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change,” Tuvalu’s prime minister, Kausea Natano, told the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Dubai, known as COP28, this month. “How many more COP meetings do we need to drive home to you this message of our loss and anguish?”

This agreement is the latest step in Tuvalu’s preparations for what feels like its inevitable inundation.

Tuvalu amended its constitution in October to state that the nation will maintain its statehood and maritime zones, meaning it will continue to assert sovereignty and citizenship, even if it no longer has any land.

This follows an audacious initiative to become the world’s first digital nation, with the government last year announcing a plan to create a clone of itself in the metaverse, preserving its history and culture online so that people can use virtual reality to visit the islands long after they’re underwater.

A precarious place in the Pacific

Tuvalu, a low-lying archipelago half way between Australia and Hawaii, could become the first country made uninhabitable because of sea-level rise.

Yet ensuring a future for its citizens is by far the most difficult challenge, and one that will dominate the general election on Jan. 26.

It is likely to be a referendum on the Falepili (“good neighborliness”) Union treaty with Australia, which offered Tuvaluans visas and about $11 million for coastal restoration, as well as a pledge to assist Tuvalu in case of a natural disaster, pandemic or military aggression.

But it comes with a catch: Canberra must agree before Tuvalu inks a security or defense deal with any other country.

Tuvaluans play volleyball on the airstrip of the Funafuti International Airport. Because there is so little free space on the island, and only a few flights per week, Tuvaluans tend to gather to play sports on the airstrip every evening. (Michael Miller/The Washington Post)

That clause is widely seen as an effort to lock out China, which has raised alarms in the West with its growing presence in the South Pacific, especially in the Solomon Islands, where Beijing secured diplomatic recognition in 2019 and struck a security agreement last year.

Announcing the agreement with Natano last month, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Australia would need to approve any security or defense deal Tuvalu struck with another “state or entity” in order to “allow for effective operation of Australia’s security guarantee.” Some analysts see that as an attempt to avoid a repeat of the Solomon Islands, where both Chinese and Australian police are now deployed.

Tuvalu is one of only 12 countries in the world (along with the Vatican City) that still recognize Taiwan instead of China, and Beijing has been trying hard to convince Tuvalu to switch diplomatic allegiances. Natano, who is seeking reelection, has rebuffed Beijing’s efforts.

Tuvaluan climate activist Richard Gokrun at the northern end of Funafuti, where the island is only a few meters wide and houses are often damaged by storms and floods. (Michael Miller/The Washington Post)

But Australia’s “veto power” has upset some Tuvaluans, who believe their vulnerable nation has been bullied into ceding sovereignty in exchange for a safe harbor.

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Adding to their anger: The treaty does not require Australia, one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel exporters, to take more action on global warming — the root cause of Tuvalu’s woes. (Australia was, however, among the nearly 200 countries that agreed at COP28 earlier this month to transition away from fossil fuels to avert the worst effects of the climate crisis.)

“If Australia believes in providing a humanitarian pathway for Tuvaluans, the best way they can do that is to reduce their emissions, stop opening up coal mines, stop exporting coal,” said Enele Sopoaga, Tuvalu’s opposition leader, who has pledged to tear up the deal if he wins office. “It’s shameful for Australia to suddenly jump up and say, ‘Tuvalu, I can offer you a saving hand.’”

Local activists have similar concerns.

“There are many young Tuvaluans who are very excited about this treaty, about moving to Australia,” said Richard Gokrun of the Tuvalu Climate Action Network. “But this is not a solution. It won’t stop the existential threat we are facing. It won’t stop the sea level from rising.”

A cemetery on Funafuti, where some gravestones have been washed away by the rising sea. (Michael Miller/The Washington Post)

An election surprise

Much of the criticism surrounds the secrecy and timing of the treaty. Announced just two weeks before the final session of Parliament, it left little time for debate, let alone for new laws needed to enforce it. That meant the treaty’s fate hinges on Tuvalu’s upcoming election.

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Seve Paeniu, Tuvalu’s minister for finance and climate change, denied the treaty was timed to win favor. Australian officials say the schedule was set by Tuvalu and that they have done everything possible to avoid influencing the vote.

But Sopoaga accuses Australia of “meddling” in the election. The visas, he said in an interview, were “carrots” for voters, but the treaty was really “all about China.”

Simon Kofe, who gave up an Australian passport to run for Parliament and who served as a minister in Natano’s government until recently, also criticized the agreement. While the two countries share many values, Tuvalu shouldn’t be dragged into a geopolitical tussle, he said, noting that Tuvaluan islands that hosted U.S. airfields in World War II were bombed.

Tuvaluan opposition leader Enele Sopoaga outside his home in Funafuti. (Michael Miller/The Washington Post)

“We need to be wise in the decisions we make today because if a conflict was ever to break out again, then Tuvalu could be a target,” he said. “Our interests may come into conflict with Australia’s interests, and our interests might be sacrificed.”

Yet Kofe — who addressed COP two years ago while knee-deep in water, and who has been the architect of key initiatives including the constitutional reforms and digital clone — wants the next government to revise, rather than scrap, the treaty.

The treaty adopted his idea of Tuvalu’s enduring statehood, which was a victory. But it didn’t cut Australian emissions or provide Tuvaluans with visa-free travel.

“If you’re calling us family, then you should treat us like it,” he said.

A man checks a “toddy,” or tap, on a coconut tree in Funafuti. The sap is used to make juice or is fermented into alcohol. (Michael Miller/The Washington Post)

‘We have to leave’

Tuvalu is already feeling global warming’s effects. King tides routinely flood nearly half of Funafuti, the capital. Crops wither in ever saltier soil. Warming waters provide increasingly meager catches.

Sea levels around Tuvalu have risen nearly six inches in the past 30 years and are projected have risen a total of eight inches or more by 2050, according to a NASA study.

Storms are becoming more common and catastrophic. A cyclone struck the island of Nui in 2015 with such power that locals watched ancestors’ coffins carried away by the waves.

Such incidents have left Tuvaluans weighing whether to flee before the agreement with Australia is even in force. For Taafaki Semu Taafaki, a 49-year-old shipping agent, the answer is a reluctant yes.

“We love the life we lead here,” he said, taking a gulp of kava, a plant-based drink popular across the Pacific for its relaxing effects, from a coconut shell one warm evening. “But we have to leave.”

Taafaki Semu Taafaki, a 49-year-old shipping agent, doesn’t want to leave Tuvalu but feels he has little choice as climate change is making it increasingly unlivable. (Michael Miller/The Washington Post)

Gokrun, the climate activist, vows to stay. But he worries for those who don’t. Will they be welcome in a country that recently rejected a request for recognition from its own Indigenous people? How will Tuvaluans afford a home in Australia? And will only the young and able be allowed to go?

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For Jack, the young mother, the choice is not easy. Her husband is in New Zealand, picking fruit to support their three children, and has yet to meet their youngest. Their previous home was damaged in a cyclone. The current one rattles in strong winds and often floods.

A new life in Australia would mean no more separation, no more cyclones, no more floods. But she fears it would also mean saying goodbye to her mother, a diabetic who recently lost the toes on one foot.

Annabella Mataio, 56, said she didn’t want to burden her daughter. “I want her to go and look for a better future,” she said. “Here in Tuvalu there is no hope.”

Young Tuvaluans stop their motorbikes on the edge of a sea wall recently built to protect an area of reclaimed land in the capital, Funafuti. (Michael Miller/The Washington Post)


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