Tuvalu, a Pacific island nation that was once made up of 11 islands, is now reduced to nine small pieces of land measuring less than 25.8 kmtwowhich, like their already lost brethren, are at risk of being gradually swallowed by the rising tides of the world’s warming oceans.
For decades, Tuvalu’s leaders have been warning about the effects of global emissions on this small place. “It’s a matter of disappearing from the face of the Earth,” Kausea Natano, the prime minister, said in September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
So when Natano and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese last week announced a bilateral agreement between their nations to help Tuvalu mitigate the effects of climate change, many envisioned a full offer of climate-related asylum to the approximately 11,200 citizens of Tuvalu.
At least in the short term, the truth is somewhat less eye-catching.
The treaty, announced at the Pacific Islands Forum in the Cook Islands on Friday (10), recognizes that “climate change is Tuvalu’s greatest national security concern.” But it will allow a maximum of 280 residents to migrate from Tuvalu to Australia each year, under an existing visa type for Pacific residents.
Natano said this limit was imposed to prevent brain drain: qualified citizens leaving their home nation in search of more advantageous or attractive opportunities elsewhere.
Speaking to the press on the island of Aitutaki, Albanese presented the agreement as an opportunity for the people of Tuvalu to “live, study and work elsewhere as the impacts of climate change worsen”. Not mentioned was the fact that at a rate of 280 people per year, it would take around 40 years for all of Tuvalu’s citizens to move to Australia.
For now, the Tuvaluan leader does not appear to be immediately looking for a new home for his people. Instead, the agreement, which Albanese said was proposed by Natano, emphasizes “the desire of the people of Tuvalu to continue living on their territory when possible and Tuvalu’s deep ancestral connections to the land and sea.”
To help them achieve this, Australia will contribute money to the Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project, which aims to reclaim land around the main island, Funafati, as well as at least 350 million Australian dollars (about US$220 million ) in climate infrastructure for the region.
For Australia, which has watched China’s diplomatic maneuvers in the Pacific with some dismay, the value of the deal could far outweigh the benefits for Tuvalu.
The agreement states that the Pacific nation will not enter into any other international security agreement without Australia’s explicit consent, limiting the likelihood of Tuvalu forming an alliance with China, as the Solomon Islands did.
The climate-related challenges facing Tuvalu are profound. By 2050, half of Funafuti’s land area is expected to be flooded daily, according to the country’s government. The nation also faces significant difficulties with drought and rising groundwater salinity.
Natano and his predecessors have struggled with these potentially conflicting desires — to keep Tuvaluans safe and to keep them living in their ever-shrinking homeland. But a constitutional change adopted by the country in October suggests that despite the millions Tuvalu plans to spend on climate adaptation, plans are afoot for a future in which its islands are completely submerged.
The document now states that the country’s sovereignty will remain “in perpetuity in the future, regardless of the impacts of climate change”, even if the landmass no longer exists.
What lawmakers hope will remain is the country’s unique Polynesian culture, as well as its exclusive fishing rights in a sea area larger than Texas.