The shores of Tuvalu


I recently had the chance to escape the stresses and chaos of everyday life, and return to my families holiday home in the Sunshine Coast. It was the place I considered to be home, not because of the amount of time spent there, but the memories of family barbecues, the smell of the salt air washing over me and the feeling of complete ease as I watched the waves roll out for another evening.

But whilst I felt comfort in watching the waves reside for another day, in another part of the world this was just an impending danger.

When I meet Sailoto Liveti he seemed like any other university student in his final year. You’d expect him to be worried about that looming final exam, or the plan for when it is finally all over, but this is far from the truth.

Sailoto Liveti is one of ten thousand Pacific Islander from the island of Tuvalu, who are currently fighting climate change on the front lines and if nothing is done, then his home will be submerged beneath the Pacific Ocean.

Even with warnings time and time again from scientists and news articles, most of us only notice the impacts of climate change in passing. This could be from noticing that summers slightly hotter or that the storms this year are becoming more frequent.

For Sailoto however, this moment occurred years ago when as a boy his father showed him the Island where he use to play as a child, only to see two tiny dots of sand in the distance. When Sailoto would later return as an adult, this island was gone, the traces of what was there no taken by the ocean.

“It was then I realised just how serious climate change really was and that it could take my home away if I didn’t do anything.” – Sailoto Liveti

A glimpse at the islands of Tuvalu, Source: Shuuichi Endou

Sailoto explained to me that this was the moment that cemented his determination to fight for his home. He told me that it pushed him further within his studies so that he might one day bring those skills home and he even once performed in a play.

The play in question was called ‘Mama’s bones’ and  depicts the struggles of a family who is forced to relocate because of climate change, but is faced with the dilemma of leaving their mothers bones behind on the island.

Playing the role of the son Sailoto said, “I was nervous just before the show, not because I was scared of performing in front of people, but because I wanted to get it right. But when I stepped out there the nerves just washed away and before I knew it the play was over.”

But while it may just be a play to us, the issue is all too real. Sailoto’s own uncle recently told his family that if he was offered to relocate he will refuse.His reason was simple, Tuvalu was his home, his parent’s home, his grandparent’s home, the home of his people and walking away from that wasn’t an option.

This highlights an increasingly prominent issue, one that concerns the history, the culture and identity of the people of Tuvalu.

The president of Tuvalu Enele Sopoaga is pushing for such a framework which differentiates from the refugee convention in order to recognise the need to preserve the identity and culture of those displaced by the effects of climate change.

Addressing the world humanitarian summit earlier this year, Mr Sopoaga said, “think of a situation where Tuvaluans have to be relocated because no land is there, under current international law, we don’t have any framework to work from. We need one so we can be relocated elsewhere, while still claiming our sovereignty rights to our part of the world.”

The call for a stronger framework which focuses upon climate displacement is long awaited, as recent initiatives are non-binding, and as time is running out, more urgency for the matter is needed.

Maarten Van Aalst, director of the Red Cross Climate Centre also weighed in on the issue. Stating that it is obvious from the Paris climate summit that the world needs to shift its attitudes to how we manage risk.

“Rather than waiting for disasters to happen, we need to anticipate shocks and stresses, and build resilience especially among the most vulnerable.” – Martin Van Aalst

As one of the greatest threats to humanities future we are still struggling to grasp the severity of the situation.

During our interview the final question I asked Soiloto was how he felt about the looming possibility that Tuvalu might within the future be completely submerged.

The silence which followed spoke louder than words, but as he pushed through I couldn’t help to admire the strength that he has.

“I couldn’t imagine not being able to feel the sand between my toes, to know that the place I call home is submerged underwater. But it is a reality that I have to face, that everyone not just the people of Tuvalu will eventually have to face and it saddens me that an issue so real that effects everyone isn’t getting the attention it deserves or even the urgency in the greater community.”

This is one of those moments as a journalist where I was left speechless, not just for the strength that he showed, but the entire community of Tuvalu from their president to those on the ground constructing sea-walls to stop the impending tide.

I couldn’t imagine how it would feel to have the possibility of losing my home looming in front of me and as I reflected on it after our interview, I realised just how small my home might feel compared to the world.

Sharn Kennedy

Griffith University - Journalist

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