The best way to paint a picture of Tuvalu (pronounced tuːˈvɑːlu) is to imagine rewinding the clock. Rewind it to your childhood or a place and time in American history when no one locked their doors, any kid could walk the streets unsupervised (even as young as 4 or 5) and you can park your bike unlocked anywhere. Imagine a town too small to ever truly get lost, everyone knows pretty much everyone and you can wander up to houses on a Saturday night to listen to backyard music because everyone is welcome. Perhaps that scene has never actually existed in America but the idyllic idea of it has. Now imagine that community the size of 11,000 people, 3 - 6 feet above sea level and surrounded entirely by ocean. That is Tuvalu.
Over and over again, the people here describe life as simple and safe and easygoing. It’s why they love living on this island. As one community leader stated, “I’ve travelled the world and lived abroad in New Zealand but I don’t feel free in those places. Only in Tuvalu do I feel free. No one is stressing or haggling over too many rules or strict enforcement. It’s free and laidback here.” As Taonea, who runs the local dump and became my impromptu tour guide, emergency taxi and Kava club drinking buddy, put it, “my sister keeps asking me to come live with her in New Zealand but then I’d miss Tuvalu and I don’t want to miss Tuvalu.”
One of the places on the island that embodies the laid back nature of the island is the airport runway. There is no fence blocking it or keeping people out. In fact it might be the only airport runway in the world that turns into a giant park by day. When there are no flights, it’s a playground, soccer field, romantic stroll for couples, local hangout spot for teens, the best wifi spot on the island and by night it’s an outdoor sleeping spot when it’s too hot to sleep indoors.
Real estate is so limited that every area is precious, especially right in the middle of town. When it’s time for a plane to come, a few sirens go off, a local street is blocked by a fire truck but people can cross the runway even 10 minutes before the flight lands. It’s an event to watch the planes land and take off and even the dogs come. While watching a flight take off for Kiribati, a dog wandered onto the runway. I watched half expecting personnel to rush and scare the dog away but everyone simply waited for the dog to carry on and walk off, which it did a few minutes later.
Atoll nations (5 in total) are the lowest-lying countries in the world at only a few meters above sea level. And while they all share certain similarities in their topographies, they are also very unique in their land mass and culture. Tuvalu is made up of only 9 islands and it’s total land mass is just 10 square miles — much smaller than other atoll nations like Maldives, Marshall Islands and Kiribati. Funafuti is the most populous of the islands and you can bike end to end in a few hours.
Tuvalu is incredibly vulnerable to rising seas. A recent Guardian article stated that a local catch phrase for the island is “Tuvalu is sinking” and according to its government, two of its nine islands are on the verge of going under water.
As the former Tuvalu ambassador to the US and UN put it, “We are one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. To truly understand it, you have to visit and see for yourself.” Afelee Falema Pita’s home is on an islet and surrounded by water. But it’s also surrounded by his children and grandchildren as many family members live there with him and his wife.
The scene is a little surreal as a picture of him and President Obama hangs on his wall while he sits casually on hand-woven mats with an unbuttoned shirt, hanging with guests that come to stay in a bed and breakfast like atmosphere. We chatted about when he lived on another island in New York City for six years. He chuckled as he recounts finding out he’d be living on Roosevelt Island and thinking, “oh I’m used to living on islands.” Needless to say, he prefers his islet and being surrounded by family and the ocean that provides a huge backyard playground. “I believe in climate change and the science and that we must deal with it, but it’s not going to keep me from living my life.”
There is a peaceful and relaxed nature among the people here despite having the ocean knocking on their doors. Witnessing this island and its various scenes fills me with both joy and sadness, as this country deserves to continue being carefree and tranquil. They should be able to coexist peacefully with the ocean that surrounds them.
“The Marshall Islands are the distant cousin you’ve never heard of” is one portrayal I heard to describe the unique relationship between the U.S. and the Marshallese. Personally, I’ve known about the islands since Tony de Brum, Marshall Islands’ Foreign Minster, spearheaded the creation of the “coalition for ambition” at the climate talks in Paris in 2015.
This coalition of developed and developing countries agreed to a target of limiting planetary warming to 1.5°C so that island states could continue to thrive and not go under water. But I’m in the climate nerd camp, so there is a good chance you’ve never heard of the Marshall Islands or know where to find them on a map.
However, I should have been introduced to these islands far earlier. They should have featured prominently in my U.S. history books alongside the stories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and our past of nuclear weapon usage and testing. It’s a period of our history we like to glaze over.
Between 1946 and 1958 the U.S. conducting 67 nuclear weapon tests on several of the Marshall Island atolls. Yes you read that right.
I was at the Alele National Museum in Majaro, Marshall Islands when I first read that number. I had to ask an employee at the museum for help when I looked at the list of “tests.”
I initially didn’t understand. I had briefly read about the nuclear testing but when I saw the list I asked, like an idiot American, “those are the dates of ALL the bombs…like actual nuclear bombs being dropped.” I think internally I was hoping there was something lost in translation even though it was in English.
The US dropped 23 bombs on the Bikini Atoll alone. You recognize the word Bikini because the French designer that created the Bikini swimsuit called it by that name based on the explosive history of the atoll.
The largest of the US bombs vaporized 3 small islands and was a thousand times more powerful than Hiroshima. You can imagine the nuclear fallout and the sickness that ensued along with the U.S. denial that anyone was impacted.
The bombs haven’t been the only aspect of US impact. The flow of cheap (and sometimes free) packaged and canned food has created a severe dependency on imports and unhealthy foods. The health ramifications are extremely problematic with the Marshall Islands being the 7th most obese country in the world.
As I received a glimpse of the Marshallese experience with the US, it’s no wonder it’s a complicated relationship mired in dependency, abuse and opportunity.
In the 1980s, the Compact of Free Association was signed allowing the Marshallese to live and work indefinitely in the US without visas in exchange for allowing the US military the right to use the atolls freely. This has led to nearly 30K Marshallese (50k currently reside in the Marshalls) moving, mostly for jobs, education and healthcare needs.
Then add the final layer — climate change. The U.S. is the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases and the Marshall Islands are literally drowning because of it. With one meter of seal level rise, more than 90% of the Marshall Islands will be submerged.
As Ben Graham, the country’s Chief Secretary, put it “when the oceans rise, we will be wiped off the map.” Globally, we are currently on a path toward 1.5°C temperature rise by as early as 2030 and with it the rapid rise of the oceans will follow. However, before the sea level fully rises, the Marshall Islands will face what Graham calls, “slow creeping misery” through increases in flooding and wave driven inundation as well as salt water intrusion to the water lens and local crops.
The Marshallese know they are a disrupted people and they regularly refer to themselves as survivors. You have to be fierce survivors to thrive on islands in the Pacific for thousands of years.
But as we barrel down a path toward surpassing the 1.5°C warming threshold that Tony de Brum and so many other island countries fought to keep below, how the Marshall Islands survive is an open question. Do they build up or migrate away from the land that is so critical to their culture and identity? Or is there still time for another future?
When de Brum was asked at the Paris Climate Conference, “Are you here to save your country?” his response was “No, we’re actually here to save the world.” Because if we save the Marshall Islands — the lowest lying, most vulnerable islands — we save the rest of us.
I lay there looking up at the Hawaiian sky. I had only started this journey a week before and here I was in Honolulu on my backside looking up at the beautiful sky. But I wasn’t on a beach towel or the soft sand, instead I was splayed out on pavement with my legs mangled in a bicycle, and blood coming from multiple body parts. I tore through my only pair of pants and as I pulled the tear away to look at the leg inside I cringed and fell back to the pavement. It was a deep gash with all the knee skin removed.
As I looked up at the Hawaiian sky, I couldn’t admire its beauty. All I could think about was I just started this journey and already I’m bleeding. I knew I set out on perhaps an insane journey and mission but come on! I was hoping to get at least a month in before the blood started to flow.
Instead of getting up and dusting myself off as is my usual post-accident MO (yes there have been other bike accidents), I couldn’t. Perhaps I was somewhat in shock as I took a serious chunk out of my hand and knee; but I simply lay there looking up at the Hawaiian sky.
And then as has been happening over the past year, the universe came knocking with a message. Sandy pulled up in her golf cart. I’m not sure if she was a park worker but she seemed very official. “I saw you go down over there,” came a southern accent. I watched this hearty lady climb out of the vehicle and literally picked me up because I just couldn’t move. She did that classic mom move where she dusts you off and looks you over. Spotting the knee with her gaze, her face winced and with a booming voice she said “well honey, that is going to hurrrrt, but if it’s the worst thing that happens to you all year, you’re going to be just fine.” And then wrapped me in a big hug.
I didn’t know whether to burst into tears or let out a laugh. Her message and compassion were so unexpected and swift. It was only a few days after the New Year and she was right, if I got through 2019 and this bike wreck was the worst thing that happened, I was going to be just fine.
Lynn Englum has been writing and working on climate change and resilience issues for over a decade. She co-authored World Wildlife Fund's Climate Blog and her articles have appeared in various other news, journal and magazine outlets.