Peace Magazine: To Pile Sand on Tuvalu

Peace Magazine

To Pile Sand on Tuvalu

• published Jan 08, 2024 • last edit Jan 08, 2024

Ambassador Tapugao Falefou, who represents his homeland Tuvalu at the United Nations, spoke with Metta Spencer on December 23 about the uncertain future of his small, scenic country.

Fewer than 12,000 people inhabit Tuvalu ‘s ten square miles three low-lying reef islands and six atolls that lie half-way between Hawaii and Australia. It is the state with the second-smallest population (just a little more populous than the Vatican) and receives the smallest number of visitors. Only a few thousand arrive each year, always on a small Fijian plane. But lately the country ‘s only landing strip has been closed for repairs, because somehow, salt water is seeping up from the soil, making the tarmac unsafe.

This is a minor aspect of Tuvalu ‘s biggest threat: climate change. As Ambassador Falefou noted, his country ‘s highest point is only three or five meters above the sea level, which makes it extremely vulnerable to the impacts of rising sea levels. Beginning in about 1992 at the Rio Convention, Tuvaluans began to realize the scope of their future predicament.

Falefou has first-hand familiarity with the changing climate. Even when he was a child, there were strong winds or even cyclones between October to March, but now these are more frequent and are matched by droughts, which are new. In February or March they used to experience what they called “king tides. “ Now they happen every year, at the same time as a cyclone, so the waves overlap into the island.


The land is saturating with sea water, which affects Tuvaluan crops. Falefou said that their staple foods are pulaka (also called “swamp taro “) and breadfruit. These crops can no longer be grown abundantly.

“We only have the ocean and the fish, “ said Falefou, “and only enough food for our own consumption. So, we are not exporting any agricultural products. We import all our foods from overseas. “

But Falefou refuses to be pessimistic.

“We hope for the best and are preparing for the worst. The worst scenario is inundation, which would make the island uninhabitable. But we are hopeful that major emitters will stop emitting greenhouse gas and work on mitigation. “We ‘ve already had two projects. We have a big deposit of sand in the lagoon. So, we just need to dredge the sand. There are two reclamation projects that we have completed. We just got the sand from the lagoon. “ The first reclamation project, which New Zealand financed, was completed in 2018. The second, funded by the Green Climate Fund, was finished only in October.

A lot more projects are needed, Falefou realizes. “Within the century, “ he said. “most of the low-lying atolls may still be in existence but may not be inhabitable. “


We discussed two recent proposals one to create the world ‘s first “digital nation, “ and the other an offer from Australia to accept Tuvaluan immigrants.

Indeed, Tuvalu is preparing for its worst scenario, where its people will be scattered around the world. So, there are plans to migrate the country ‘s government to the metaverse and keep it functioning as a state, no matter where its people are physically located. If worse comes to worst and they have to scatter, Tuvaluans also intend to digitize, catalog, and preserve their cultural heritage.

Recently Australia has offered special treatment to Tuvaluans who want to live and work in their country. There is now a treaty providing a climate mobility pathway “ for people from Tuvalu and four or five other Pacific countries who want to immigrate. Also, Australia will provide support to Tuvalu in terms of security.

I speculated that perhaps Canada would give some of its abundant territory to Tuvalu so they could immigrate together and re-establish their country on an Arctic island. The ambassador did not show much interest. He mentioned wistfully the possibility of a floating island. But he’d be even more grateful for some money for dredging and elevating.

Shall we help pile up sand on Tuvalu?

Published in Peace Magazine Vol.40, No.1 Jan-Mar 2024
Archival link: Pile Sand on Tuvalu.htm
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