Fusing tradition and technology to protect communities in Tuvalu

Published: 20 May 2015 9:45 CET

By Rosemarie North,  IFRC

In Tuvalu, a project that links high-tech forecasting and traditional knowledge to help people cope with disasters and climate change will be piloted to deliver meaningful weather and climate information in an effort to strengthen people’s resilience.

George Latu, the community chairman in Teone, is eager for the project to start to help his community prepare for hazards like Tropical Cyclone Pam. The community in Teone is a group of 540 people living on the edge of Tuvalu’s capital, Funafuti. They stay in makeshift stilt houses threatened on one side by the ocean, and on the other by a pit that fills with salt water at high tide. Most people in Teone are unemployed and have limited ability to replace rusty roofs or secure their houses. When they heard warnings about Cyclone Pam on the radio and by word of mouth, they heaved rocks to weigh down roofs and lashed ropes around house poles.

“There’s no point nailing the roofs on – they’re so rusty the nails won’t hold. But during Pam there were strong winds and some corrugated iron roofs were blown away,” Latu said.

For three days, Pam’s low pressure and high winds whipped water into the floors of many huts and moved boulders across the only road in and out of Teone. Latu explained that noticeboards around Teone with clear information about bad weather and climate risks such as drought are crucial as not everyone listens to the radio or understands meteorological terms.

As well as helping Teone manage water supplies better, the project will look at how people can keep the environment as clean as possible to limit the spread of disease, and investigate the most appropriate crops to grow with scarce soil.

The project is a collaboration between the Tuvalu Red Cross Society, the Tuvalu National Disaster Management Office and the Finnish Pacific Project (FINPAC) through the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), the Tuvalu Meteorological Service and other partners. It will improve livelihoods by delivering effective weather, climate and early warning information to affected communities. Tuvalu is one of ten countries where the Red Cross is working on a FINPAC/SPREP project to improve weather and climate information.

“We identified the Teone community as a good place to start because they have few resources and are very exposed to climate change and bad weather,” said Lopati Samasoni, the Tuvalu Red Cross Society project officer.

The partners designed the project after asking the community in Teone about changes they had seen since the settlement was established in the late 1970s. They noticed differences such as erosion along the coast, more frequent and intense king tides that filled the pits and threatened houses, a change in marine life and environment, and more dengue fever and skin diseases. One of the requests included warnings to reach vulnerable groups including the elderly and the disabled.  

“We want everyone affected by climate change to be able to prepare,” Samasoni explained.  “The lessons we learn from Teone will be useful for other people in Tuvalu.”

Tauala Katea, scientific officer at the Tuvalu Meteorological Service, is keen to translate his forecasts into more user-friendly language. “It’s a challenge for us to translate technical terms into the local language. When we move into long-term forecasting we use terms like La Niña or El Niño. It’s hard to define them in the Tuvaluan language. A term like El Niño takes a paragraph to explain in Tuvaluan.”

Another challenge will be working with Teone to figure out what triggers a particular climate alert. Two weeks without rain is enough for people on Funafuti to start buying and storing water, but it doesn’t count as a drought in weather terms.

Tuvalu Red Cross Society Secretary General Olioliga Iosua said that good information combined with traditional knowledge will help people cope better. “There are old ways of coping with hardship that we need to revive, like how to dry, salt or bury food to keep it fresh – sometimes for years," she said. "It’s in the Red Cross disaster plan. Young people are used to buying food, but older people remember these things. We have grandmothers who can teach the younger generation, even in displaced communities like Teone.”