The country of Tuvalu is a tiny group of atolls in the middle of the Pacific. It's one of the lowest lying, smallest, and most isolated countries on earth.
There are no natural resources, there is little infrastructure and virtually no tourism with the one and only hotel in the capital having been donated by the Chinese. The ecology has been devastated by more than just salinity, and Tuvalu is entangled in all kinds of international political manipulations.
The friendly Tuvaluans’ look likely candidates to be the world's first eco-refugees. The interesting thing for me is that the way the world deals with Tuvalu will most probably set the model for all developing countries directly threatened by global warming.
A while back on a flight over Holland for a meeting in Germany I looked out the plane window and saw flat land. I though about this as subject matter for a photographic series because there no "features" so the images become about the people of the lands and their relationship with it.
In addition, some of these are the lands most at risk from rising sea levels, but others have very different issues. There are complexities here.
Tuvalu is made up of 9 very low lying and narrow island atolls. It has a total land area of 26 sq. km ( 10 sq miles )- about half the size of Manhattan. Thin, tiny vulnerable strips of land encircling lagoons, in a great big expanse of blue.
The people of Tuvalu are said to have inhabited the land for over 2000 years, coming from a Polynesian background. It has been a nation since 1978, and is one of the smallest and most isolated countries on earth. It was admitted into the UN in 2000.
There are approximately 11000 Tuvaluans.
The capitol, Funafuti atoll is made up of narrow sections of land between 20 and 400 meters wide, encircling a large lagoon 18 km long and 14 km wide with 3 main entry points to the sea.
Well off the beaten track, visitors number around 1000 a year, mainly made up of officials, students and a handful of tourists, there is little hope for a burgeoning tourism industry. The plane I flew in on had a famous Japanese actress and a film crew, some locals returning, and a Japanese professor of economics and his assistant.
It has the enviable airport code of FUN. Three planes away from Sydney with the last plane being, well, functional. There are 2 planes a week. The plane stays for an hour and flies out. The runway, one of the few cleared areas on the narrow atoll, reverts back to its main use of games of volleyball and football and general hanging around during the afternoon.
As you walk around in the heat you realize how densely populated the village is having grown as people from the outer islands seek better prospects and more safety on the capitol. There are approximately 5000 people living in a small village area, with homes made from a mix of traditional materials and cinderblocks and anything else available.
There is no credit card facilities, there are few shops, no advertising, no fast food outlets, there used to be a mobile phone network, but the tower was burnt out in a storm. There is internet there, but it can be slower than dial-up. When they are hungry they can get a coconut or pull a tuna out of the sea. Tuvalu has no military.
There is even a very small china town community. I spoke to a local Chinese restaurant owner who ended up here because the locals are accepting and although they drink do not get violent like other pacific nations. They leave him alone to run his business.
You also realize as you walk, that there is no hills or mountains, the highest point is less than 4 meters above high tide and there’s not an awful lot of land. In your newly found spare time you look out to the sea and, if your a visual person with a slightly dramatic imagination you can almost see the big wave on the horizon coming in and washing this whole place, and you away. You think about what you would do, where you would run until you realize that after a few hundred meters there is nowhere to run.
But this is a story of insidious erosion, rather than cataclysmic destruction.
There is flooding during spring tides, with occasional water lapping over the seaside beachhead, and water bubbling up from the porous coral ground in some areas.
The elders say only in the last generation has their culture changed, from both more interaction with the rest of the world and ecological changes. The middle aged are the ones who are addressing these issues and looking at what will happen to their beloved culture and way of life in the future. The children are happy, playful and love having their photos taken although I seem to have 3000 images of kids doing island gangsta hand gestures - I said I would send a copy of all the images I took to the national archives. Not sure what anyone will make of that in 100 years.
A few outsiders referred to the Tuvaluans are a simple people. They certainly have a relaxed view on life, they have spare time and they are friendly and polite. They seem happier in the afternoons when the chores are done and the heat is dying down. You cannot push them into doing anything, or they politely say tomorrow, come back tomorrow.
I was there for 10 days, with time to think, you're split between feeling like there is something missing from your western life and anxiously needing to be back in a city.
The people are deeply religious with most belonging to the church of Tuvalu, a Protestant Christian church. Many of the people hold the belief that God said there would be no more floods after Noah.
But they see their main crop of Paluka, a slow growing tuber, dying, the weather patterns changing and the very sand moving beneath them.
The protective lens shaped water table that lies beneath the land surface is turning brackish due to both pollution and salt water contamination.
During the second world war an airstrip was made by the US, the ground was cleared of palm trees and additional sand brought from the north and south of the area around the airstrip. They were called " borrow " pits because the sand was supposed to be returned. The borrow pits still exist and are filled with sea water that rises in high tides, along with garbage and are surrounded by pig pens. The contamination of the ground water gets worse each year.
The coral reef being porous means that ever rising sea water can come up through the ground in certain areas propelled with high tides and storm surges, bringing salinity and leading to further decline in already poor soil, making crops harder to grow.
And it bubbles up most notably around the airstrip. This is the only cleared bit of land. With a background of people are feeding their pigs, one of the joys of Funafuti is wandering round in the late afternoon with an uncountable crowd up and down the runway playing games of volleyball, flying kites, hanging out, talking and practicing for soccer matches. The soccer matches are one island against another. I was told that most games end up with rainstorms that are conjured up with island voodoo to make them interesting.
With modernization, foreign contact and imports there is garbage problems with a large garbage dump surrounded by dying palm trees in the islands northern end also adding to pollution of the ground.
I took a boat trip around the non inhabited parts of the atoll, the weather was perfect and with each little islet a new tropical island fantasy appeared, with blue and green clear waters, manta rays, golden sandy beaches, palm trees, birds, coral, fish and waves until we reached Tepuka Savilivili one of the little islets that was damaged in a storm a few years back and since lost its palm trees and sand, now just a small ugly spec of dead coral and rock just slightly above water. On a nearby islet there are palm trees fallen over into the water as the sand is washed away as the coastline changes in the currents. My boat guides tell me how quickly the sand is moving and I don't know what to say to them, I become uncomfortable and tongue tied realizing what ever I say would be totally inadequate.
But I know that if Bondi beach was moving this fast even the generally apathetic Sydney-siders would be up in arms and big names charity concerts would be organized.
On a rainy stormy Sunday at high tide I got the chance to watch the waves just spray and roll up almost over the sea wall edge and onto the land. Had there been a bit more swell then the water could have easily continued over the 40 meters of land and into the lagoon. I was standing beside a grave. Ancestors are still important and every house has a brightly decorated grave next to it. Some of the graves get flooded and some are thinking of moving the bones.
Fresh water is supplied from rainwater tanks, supplied as part of the aid from Australia, as the ground water is no good and there are no streams or rivers.
The soil is poor, there are few natural resources, building supplies or fuel supplies and no known mineral supplies, so the future economic prospects look a little bleak.
It may be their island heritage but they are a resourceful and savvy people, already having leased their internet domain - ".tv". They paved a road and have used the remaining funds to fund a UN ambassador and wisely invest the rest. I think if they could figure out a way to sell the abundant spare time they would. Another source of income is seamen working on merchant ships abroad, but the main source of income comes - with some political machinations - from foreign aid.
They are one of the few nations who recognize Taiwan, who has, in return built a 3 storey government building, along with the islands only hotel, and most impressively, a food growing garden scheme to try new growing techniques in an effort to promote healthier eating and get houses to start to grow their own vegetables and fruits. Mr Lee proudly runs a large garden with many varieties of vegetable all being tested for suitability for growing in Tuvalu. As any good gardener does the first thing he shows me is the compost pile. On such poor soil, its quite an achievement. Some of the people working in the garden are from the outer islands who are being trained and then return with new growing skills and seeds. On the spring tides the garden occasionally floods, so some of the more salt prone stock are in raised beds a foot off the ground. There are no bees, so everything must be hand pollinated.
Japan is also providing aid, having built a desalination plant and other structural projects are planned. According to Greenpeace, Tuvalu participated in a vote buying scheme in 2006 at the International Whaling Commission. I met some Japanese in a restaurant and asked them what they did here. They said that their role was to figure out what to do with the aid as there was too much.
I also went by the jail, speaking to one of the 3 prisoners, I had been told that he was in for Rape. On an island of so few people talking to these prisoners seems some much more confronting.
In an address to the UN in 2003 Saufatu Sopoanga, Prime Minister of Tuvalu said
"We live in constant fear of the adverse impacts of climate change. For a coral atoll nation, sea level rise and more severe weather events loom as a growing threat to our entire population. The threat is real and serious, and is of no difference to a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us."
They have had an agreement with New Zealand that if they did have to evacuate their land that they would be taken in.
What links you to the world? Family, kids, jobs, property, money, gravity? I think they know what they need to be happy. How bold.
There is a pride more than patriotism here. There is dignity, joy and happiness in their world, with a real intention to stay and save their culture, of course some want to leave to find a better life but the majority treasure their culture, and their way of life. They are working hard to deal with the problems they face, both on small and large scale.
When you walk along the beaches you see washed up coconuts sitting, some sprouting into life, getting a foothold and encouraging land to form. Coral is a living thing and indeed with good management could even grow itself inline with the sea rise.
The sea level on earth is always in a state of change. And indeed the current issues surrounding Tuvalu is interestingly offset by the nearby Caves of Nanumanga, which are 40 meters below sea level and look to have been occupied in ancient times.
Unfortunately humans have spent a lot of time and effort putting down roots, and indeed concrete and now, inconveniently things are changing.
Perhaps how the world deals with Tuvalu will set the stage for all potential ecological refugees. Either invest both resources and money and save the cultures or accept the loss as part of an ever-changing world.