Sunday, August 19, 2001


first casualty

By Eun Jung Cahill Che
Special to the Star-Bulletin

IT'S TOO LATE for Tuvalu, a small island nation in the Pacific. Ten thousand people, Tuvalu's entire population, are packing their bags as their homes among nine low-level atolls are being swallowed by the rising sea. These are the facts of life: the earth is warming, the sea levels are rising, and Tuvalu is quietly being erased from the surface of the earth.

Leo Falcam, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, cautioned in a recent conference here that the Pacific Islanders' "early experience with real consequences of global warming has been considered analogous to the canary in the coal mine-providing an early warning to the global community of its own impending doom."

The Tuvalu islands are only the first casualties of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts a 50 centimeters to 1 meter rise in sea levels over the next century. A rise of 1m would put under water 17.5 percent of Bangladesh, 6 percent of the Netherlands, and 80 percent of Atoll Majuro of the Marshall Islands, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Low-lying coastal zones of developed countries could also be seriously effected. The panel is authoritative group of 1,000 experts and this is the overwhelming majority opinion.

Rising sea-levels are only part of the problem. The 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius rise in temperature over the next century will increase flooding, the intensity of storms, and droughts in Asia and Africa and will change the distribution of rainfall.

The disappearance of Tuvalu introduces other questions. What will become of its territorial waters? What happens when more of these islands disappear, displacing 7 million people? What are the economic and security implications of disappearing exclusive economic zones? Can there be compensation for the loss of a country, its history, its culture, its way of life? How do could a price be put on that? Who will pay it?

While developed nations quibble over details of the Kyoto Protocol, Tuvalu islanders are literally losing their homeland. To the United States and other developed nations, the dispute over the Kyoto agreement is a question of fairness. They focus on apportioning the burden of responding to the threat. Developed nations argue that developing nations like India and China will become the leading creators of greenhouse gasses in a decade or two. For U.S. negotiators, any framework that doesn't take this development into account is unfair.

For the Pacific Islanders, fairness is irrelevant. Climate change is not a future concern; it is an immediate threat. A diaspora has begun. The Tuvaluan people must build new lives in a new land. Australia and New Zealand have begun to take in refugees, who must adjust to the cultures surrounding them. After having lived in relative isolation, difficulties are inevitable.

Tuvalu is a small, homogeneous nation. Its population is 96 percent Polynesian and 97 percent belong to the Church of Tuvalu. There are no mobile phones, one radio station, and one internet service provider. There are no regular military forces as the country is so small that it did not expect to defend its territory.

The Tuvaluans want to preserve their past. The collective memory of a small society will be cleaved as its people are forced to take refuge in separate lands. That memory will be all that the Tuvaluans will have left of their homeland. Their burial grounds, schools, homes, churches are being enveloped by the ocean. The Tuvaluans can never go home again.

The world should ensure that Tuvalu is the only casualty. Climate change and sea-level rise should force all nations to face up to their complicity in destroying cultures and accept responsibility for ensuring the safekeeping of a people. The U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees should set up a fund for those losing their homes. There should be programs to support the settlement and cultural adaptation of the refugees.

Amid the clamoring for international consensus on protocols and pacts, the industrial world should heed President Falcam contention that "climate change is nothing less than a form of slow death."

Eun Jung Cahill Che is a research associate at
the Pacific Forum, a think tank in Honolulu.

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