Twice a week a plane lands at the airstrip on Tuvalu’s main atoll, Funafuti. Reporters and film crews from Japan, the United States and Korea step into the equatorial heat to document the last human habitation on the tiny Pacific nation before it “sinks”, swallowed up by rising sea levels, one of the first casualties of climate change.
Tuvalu’s 10,000-odd population see things rather differently.
Tataua Pese, himself a former journalist, says everyone knows life is changing on the world’s fourth smallest country, which is made up of nine bumps that peek a bare five metres above sea level, a total of just 26 square kilometres of crushed coral and poor top soil.
“There was the base of a gun, concrete blocks made by the Americans during World War Two. It was on land during those times when I was a boy and surrounded by trees,” he recalls.
“Now if you go there, it’s not on land any more, it’s in the sea, in water. So that shows how badly climate change has affected us.”
Tuvalu’s first prime minister following independence from Britain in 1978, Sir Toaripi Lauti, says people can quantify how much land has crumbled into the sea.
“Erosion from the beaches got worse, and that’s one of the things you can see all along,” he says, pointing to the coastline.
“I went on one of these trips showing boundaries of land and they measure the land and we found it very short. The old people pointed and sure enough we saw, there were yards missing, if we measure it. The worst we saw was about 100 feet (30 metres)… gone, that was it.”
There are other changes too: salt water seeping under the shallow land into taro pits to reduce crops; more frequent and more severe storms; dying coral.
But for many Tuvaluans like Tataua Pese, who is now the climate change and disaster management officer with the Tuvalu Red Cross Society, a National Red Cross Society in formation, the answer is not to abandon a sinking country.
“You have to live in your home country; you don’t want to leave to stay in another country. Moving to another place is a last resort. So while we are here and Red Cross is here, we can always help.”
The Red Cross help takes many forms, some of them surprising.
One sweltering day, Tataua loads up a motor boat and takes his team to Funafala Islet, 45 minutes’ journey away. It might seem close by, but the eight families living on the atoll have no phone and no way to communicate with the outside world. If there’s a cyclone or storm surge – or medical emergency – they are stuck.
Once on Funafala, the Tuvalu Red Cross delivers a solar-powered satellite phone, part of a network of phones placed around remote Pacific locations by the New Zealand Red Cross, and trains residents in its use.
Together, the Red Cross visitors and the community members, who are mostly older people, draw a map of hazards in their environment – such as the directions storms normally arrive from. They discuss what resources the community has to cope with such disasters. Tuvalu Red Cross health and care field officer Matakina Simii trains them in basic first aid.
In related Red Cross programmes, every fortnight, pairs of volunteers on Funafuti Atoll visit older people or people with a disability at home; as well as checking on their wellbeing, the Red Cross has identified them as needing help to evacuate in a disaster. Volunteers also plant hardy pandanus trees on the coastline, pick up rubbish and educate children about the environment. Next to the Tuvalu Red Cross headquarters is a shipping container stocked with blankets, sheets and 20-litre water containers.
The preparation is not academic; October is the start of cyclone season. Funafala Islet resident Mitala Folau says the storms are terrifying.
“We prepare whatever food we have and pack it into buckets and boil enough water. If there are strong winds or big waves, we go to the widest part of the islet and take shelter there.
“Those are our only hope, unless someone brings a bigger boat and takes us away, as we cannot do anything here.”
Just weeks after the last emergency training session, Tuvalu’s main island, Funafuti Atoll, was hit by a terrible storm surge.
Tufitu Lotee was woken by the roar of the wind that April night. Whipped up by the wind and lifted by low pressure, ocean waves lashed the shore, surging up to the house where she lay with her family at one overcrowded tip of Funafuti.
She managed to raise the alarm. Freshly trained Red Cross volunteers helped evacuate families and gave them relief items from the container. Some families stayed at Red Cross headquarters until their homes were repaired.
How does Tufitu feel safe living just metres from the sea?
“When I think about it, it’s not safe for other people. But we just stay because this is where we stay. We have no other place to go.”
Tataua Pese says disaster risk reduction measures – combined with traditional and scientific knowledge – are the key to feeling safe on Tuvalu.
“There are many ways we can assist the Tuvaluan people, not to pack and leave, but to stay and look into the future. And [see] whatever is around us, which we could use to adapt ourselves to the changes in climate and the disasters to come.”
It’s a guardianship role that extends into the future, says Tataua.
“If we want to assist the next generation to see the beauty of the islands that we are seeing now, we had better keep working; not give up and walk away to live in other countries.”