Tuvalu: Countdown to Drowning

The small island nation of of Tuvalu, and all other small countries vulnerable to the effects of climate change, must use the momentum from the recent COP21 talks in Paris to keep this issue front and center on the international agenda, lest they sink silently into the sea.

Tuvalu’s doomed situation has finally reached international headlines and the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) provided the country the opportunity to push for climate change to be made a global priority.Tuvalu is an archipelago country in the South Pacific Ocean; spread over a total of 26 square kilometers of land and—with little over 10,000 inhabitants—the third-least populous sovereign state in the world. Yet Tuvalu may soon cease to exist entirely, swallowed by the seas: a casualty of the damaging effects of climate change.

The archipelago is, on average, just two meters above sea level and, with the global rise of the seas, Tuvalu is bound to eventually drown. Yet the COP21 public diplomacy and awareness campaigns illustrated the limited ways the country can pressure the international community to strike a deal that would effectively slow climate change and minimize rising sea levels. To overcome its limited means, Tuvalu has resorted to—at times unconventional—high-profile international maneuvers to draw media attention to the dire situation in the archipelago.

Irreversible climate change

The United Nations (UN) first recognized the emergency of the situation in 1989, when it listed “Tuvalu as one of a number of island groups most likely to disappear beneath the sea in the 21st century because of global warming.” Global warming affects Tuvalu in many different ways: The rising sea level threatens human activities; damages the coral reefs, which jeopardizes the fish stock; and invades underground fresh water supplies. Fish is Tuvalu’s only national resource, crucial for feeding the population, and the limited fresh water has severe consequences for agriculture and the eroding coastline. Beyond the gradual loss of land as the oceans rise; global warming has also brought more extreme weather conditions to the region, especially cyclones.

Tropical Cyclone Pam hit Tuvalu and neighboring Vanuatu on March 10, 2015, and essentially redrew the map of Tuvalu.  After Cyclone Pam tore the country apart, the Red Cross, humanitarian aid organizations, and the Italian Foreign Ministry came to the rescue of the islanders. However, as highlighted by the Tuvaluan Prime Minister Enele S. Sopoaga, at COP21, these ad hoc responses must be replaced by long-term solutions and defined

Seeking new land

It is important for the international community to understand the gravity of the situation. The rising sea level and cyclones have pushed many citizens to flee the archipelago to find safer living conditions. However, not every inhabitant of Tuvalu has the financial means to emigrate.

The Tuvalu government is currently seeking solutions for its population. Fiji recently announced it would take in citizens of Tuvalu and Kiribati if climate change leaves the islands uninhabitable. New Zealand also agreed to welcome more refugees, whereas Australia has so far not made any commitment.


The recent UN Climate Summit, which took place in Paris at the end of 2015, was the perfect platform for Tuvalu and the other endangered territories around the world to make their voices heard. The prime minister of Tuvalu, in his speech at the opening of the COP21 on November 30, 2015 asked his international counterparts to agree on “setting a global temperature goal of below 1.5 degrees Celsius,” as Tuvalu and other Small Island Developing States and Least Developed Countries are already affected by climate change.

Tuvalu emerged as a leader of the small countries at COP21, in their fight to put pressure on the international community to come up with solutions and sign a deal. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon both met with Tuvaluan Prime Minister Enele Sapoaga during COP21, thus illustrating the relevance of Tuvalu when discussing climate change. At the Summit, Ban Ki Moon called for a lower threshold than what was first being negotiated at COP21, explaining that even a two-degree rise would have serious consequences for food and water security, economic stability, and international peace.

Tuvalu, like the Maldives, Philippines, and many others, is already facing the effects of global warming. Although COP21 participants wanted to prove that their governments take the issue seriously, the plan is not ambitious enough to keep he world’s Small Island Developing States safe.

Sovereignty recognition to gain attention

In recent years Tuvalu used public diplomacy to gain notice and thereby raise awareness of the harmful effects of climate change on Tuvalu. In 2011, Tuvalu won international attention for formally and unilaterally recognizing the independence of the pro-Russian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia three years after they seceded from Georgian following the Russian-Georgian War of 2008.

This seemingly random diplomatic act raised many questions. While there is no clear answer, the fact that Russia and the archipelago established diplomatic relations a few weeks after Tuvalu’s endorsement cannot be a coincidence. The recognition tactic brought two countries that had never been in contact before to a bilateral cooperation between Russia and Tuvalu, which included trade, fishing, and education. In addition, Tuvalu is one of the few countries to recognize Taiwan. In response, Taiwan said that it “wants to help Tuvalu deal with the effects of rising sea levels.”

By taking a somewhat controversial stand by recognizing these states as sovereign countries, Tuvalu attracts media attention, which in turn can raise international awareness about the archipelago’s climate change struggles. These controversial political moves push countries that do not want to see certain groups or areas granted independence to offer Tuvalu support in an effort to buy Tuvalu’s allegiance. Tuvalu finally retracted its recognition of the two-secessionist regions of Georgia last March when Georgia offered to open economic ties.  It seems like changing sides is never a problem for Tuvalu. This strategy has proven relatively effective to bring the spotlights onto the archipelago, but in the long run Tuvalu’s best bet is a concerted international effort against global warming.

The final agreement of COP21 clearly emphasized the urgency of holding the average temperature increase due to global warming to not more than two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The president of Tuvalu publicly declared his optimism and support for the Paris COP21 Agreement, characterizing the deal as “very significant.”  However, this agreement is not enough to secure the future of Tuvalu and its fellow island countries.

Tuvalu, together with the other stricken countries, must seize this momentum to maintain climate change as a world priority beyond the aftermath of COP21. Ideally, global awareness about the damaging effects of climate change raised in Paris will continue to spark discuss and debate, and lead to sustained action: perhaps then Tuvalu will no longer need to resort to using sovereignty recognition strategies to make its concerns heard.

Flora Pidoux works in Brussels in the transatlantic security and defense sector. She graduated with an MA in International Relations from Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium and a BA in Social Sciences from Roskilde University, Denmark. She is the author of a blog, where she posts articles every week.

Image credit: United Nations Development Fund/Flickr.

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