As the next round of climate negotiations continue in Cancún, the future of low-lying Pacific islands looks like a matter of faith. Written with photographer Rodney Dekker.
FAAUI Siale is sitting in her open-walled home, at the northern end of Tuvalu’s atoll capital, Funafuti. Three generations live here, side-by-side on a sliver of coral sand barely 50 metres wide. Ocean waves thump the land to her left, and a lagoon laps the shore on her right.
It is Sunday morning, and Siale sings along to hymns on the radio as a heavy wind blows and coconut palms rattle and splay towards the ground. To an outsider, everything about this scene seems precarious; but not to Siale – and for that, she claims divine assurance.
Tuvalu is the world’s second least populous nation, after Vatican City. Its 12,000 residents live on several reefs and atolls located halfway between Australia and Hawaii. Nearly all the land is less than three metres above the sea.
The director of the tiny nation’s environment department, Matio Tekinene, says his people are already suffering the ill effects of climate change.
Rising sea levels and more frequent king tides are causing coastal erosion and salinating the groundwater, making it hard to grow the traditional subsistence root crop, pulaka. The fresh water supply is now restricted to rainfall, which arrives in unfamiliar patterns at unfamiliar times. Coral bleaching is reducing fish stocks close to shore.
“Food security related to climate change is a very important issue for us,” he says. “Tuvaluan people, we live very much on our limited crops and marine resources. Nowadays there is a great change, because we have difficulty to grow these natural foods.”
But Faaui Siale, 60, is unconcerned. She does not accept that the sea level is rising. “I believe there won’t be any more floods, because of the covenant between Noah and the Lord God,” she says, with her daughter-in-law interpreting. “They made a promise during those days that there won’t be another flood in the world.”
It’s a belief shared by many of her compatriots. Recently, a survey conducted by the Tuvalu Christian Church found that nearly one-third of the population does not believe in climate change, based on their interpretation of the Old Testament.
In Genesis, Chapter 9, after the great flood subsides, God tells Noah there will never again be a flood to destroy the earth, and chooses the rainbow as the symbol of that promise.
Earlier in the morning, Siale and her family gathered next door to worship with their neighbour, Reverend Tafue Lusama, a minister in the Tuvalu Christian Church. The church is the country’s dominant religious organisation, with a membership comprising nine out of ten Tuvaluans.
Reverend Lusama, however, prefers an alternative interpretation of God’s pledge to Noah. “God is faithful to his covenant and He is not causing climate change and sea level rise,” he says. “It is human-induced, not divinely induced.”
The minister has built a low, concrete sea wall to protect his home. “Climate change is one of the church’s focal areas,” he says. “We believe that whatever impacts the lives of our people impacts the church, and climate change definitely affects the lives and the spirituality of our people.”
For the past five years, Reverend Lusama has been the chair of the Tuvalu Climate Action Network. The group coordinates the various NGOs who provide climate programs within the country, and also sends delegates to international forums, advocating for strong international action to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
“We’ve been raising our voices to be heard by the industrialised countries and the international community and still we are being ignored,” he says. “Land is equivalent to life in our culture. If your land has been gradually eroded by the sea, you are looking at your life being eaten away.
“Put simply, why should I die for the sake of luxury for others? That is injustice.”
Tuvalu is not alone among island nations crying out for deep emissions cuts by major polluters. At last year’s UN Copenhagen conference, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) argued for a legally binding agreement consistent with a global temperature rise of less than 1.5 degrees Celsius – a level that would give their nations a chance of survival.
They will take a similar case to this year’s UN negotiations in Cancún, Mexico, which run from November 29 to December 10.
Early this month, Kiribati – Tuvalu’s near neighbour in the Pacific – hosted its own meeting, the Tarawa Climate Change Conference. The President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, says the discussions sought to establish a more conciliatory atmosphere before the resumption of UN-sponsored talks.
“Some countries are more vulnerable now, but every country is vulnerable in one form or another – I believe the international community is in agreement on that issue. We should start by identifying the points of agreement and move on. Let’s not begin with the most contentious issues. Let’s work those out over time,” he says.
At the Tarawa conference, a dozen countries, including China, Japan, Australia and Brazil, signed the Ambo Declaration, affirming the “urgent need for more and immediate action” and calling for “concrete decisions” in Mexico. The United States, the United Kingdom and Canada attended the daylong meeting, but only as observers.
Kelly Dent, climate change policy advisor for Oxfam, says that while the significance of the declaration shouldn’t be overstated, it may be useful as a reference point for the coming negotiations. “Any conference that brings together these developing and developed countries, including China, is significant.”
She says that although the Pacific island nations will call for a legally binding agreement to be signed this week, they will settle for less, especially if there’s a push to fast track adaptation finance.
“If they see strong signals towards a legally binding agreement next year in South Africa, then I think that may be enough to satisfy them that significant progress is being made,” she says.
“People from these countries need reduced emissions but they also need to see well-targeted money to adapt to the impacts they’re seeing now, and they need to have a say in where that money goes.”
In Kiribati and Tuvalu, adaptation projects are already underway – from building sea walls and planting mangroves to prevent coastal erosion, to installing water tanks to supply drinking water and promoting home gardening as a means of strengthening food security and halting declining health standards.
But these measures are just the beginning. President Tong says his country cannot afford to cover its adaptation needs without significant international assistance. “With the resource constraints that we have as a developing country it’s not easy for us to address these challenges,” he says.
“The full impact of climate change is a tide we cannot stem. We keep moving back from the shoreline. In a country like Kiribati, with very narrow islands, the room to move back is very limited.”
Back on Funafuti, Reverend Lusama maintains hope. “We are optimistic about Cancún and what is going to happen there and the reason is that we cannot afford to doubt,” he says. “We believe in humanity and its ability to do the right thing at the right time.”
As the winds blow and the tides change by Faaui Siale’s simple home, it’s clear that she and her family are at the mercy of forces far larger than themselves, no matter her beliefs. The people of Kiribati and Tuvalu must hope their prayers do not go unanswered.
Read this article, and see Rodney Dekker’s multimedia show, on the Sydney Morning Herald website.
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