Tuvalu: the reality of a rising sea

Tuvalu: the reality of a rising sea

Anglican Archbishop Winston Halapua returned from three days in the stricken Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu saying that, as far as he’s concerned, rising sea levels are no longer abstract theory.

They’re real. They’re fact. Now.

Archbishop Winston has talked this past week with Tuvaluan people who are critically short of drinking water — because their wells are contaminated by salt water.

He’s seen kids roaming — because their schools have no fresh water and are therefore shut. He’s seen the hospital which has been on the brink of running out of water.

And he’s seen the breadfruit, banana and coconut trees — on which the islanders depend for food — withering and dying because their roots are being poisoned by salt water.

Dr Halapua, who was born in Tonga, and who is a trained sociologist, says that because of the particular vulnerability of low-lying island states such as Kiribati, Tokelau, Tonga and Tuvalu — which, at its highest point, is less than 5m above sea level — he’s been following the debate about climate change for ten years.

“For me, to go to Tuvalu — that’s all the information that I need.

“For me, seeing is believing.

“What I have seen is the reality of sea rising.”

And that, in Archbishop Winston’s view, “is the biggest possible issue”.

For the three days Archbishop Winston was in Tuvalu, his guide was Tofinga Falani, the Acting President of Te Ekalesia Kelisiano Tuvalu, The Christian Church of Tuvalu, to which maybe 90 per cent of the country’s 11,000 citizens belong.

According to Dr Halapua, there’s probably no-one better placed in Tuvalu to gauge how the people of the various islands and atolls in the country are coping with the crisis.

And Tofinga Falani and Archbishop Winston are agreed about what the number one plea to the wider church should be.

“We need to pray,” says Archbishop Winston.

“We need to say very, very clearly to the church that we need to pray because this is something way beyond us.

“We need to pray that we will be empowered to speak clearly to our elected agents in government who make decisions about climate change.”

Dr Halapua acknowledges that Tuvalu’s present plight has been brought on by drought.

It rained in Tuvalu last Thursday for about three minutes — and that’s the first rain they’ve seen during their rainy season. There’s no more forecast for the next three months, either.

There are, as far as Archbishop Halapua knows, very few — if any — Anglicans living on Tuvalu.

But that doesn’t mean he didn’t need to go there.

Tuvalu falls with the boundaries of the Diocese of Polynesia and, as such, Archbishop Winston says, he has a responsibility before God to the people of Tuvalu.

Tofinga Falani welcomed that line of thinking, apparently.

“When I talked to him,” says Archbishop Winston, “it was as though I’d come from Heaven. He literally said to me, ‘How humbling it was to see an archbishop come over to us at a time of crisis.’”

Archbishop Winston tried to deflect that gratitude; told him that he was only a human being doing his duty.

“Then I asked him, as a Pacific Islander to another Pacific Islander: ‘What do you need?’

“He said to me: ‘Winston: I’m ashamed to ask for anything. I can’t name it — because this is our people. But you have seen what you have seen.’

“This reluctance to ask … is the humility of Pacific Islanders. Another Pacific Islander can sense that. And I have shared with him what I intend to do.

“I told him I will appeal to the wider church for immediate help.”

But that appeal for immediate relief, says Archbishop Winston, was only a tiny part of the story.

“The bigger story is this: Please do something about climate change.”

Archbishop Winston says there are ways people in the wider church can help Tuvalu:

  • Pray. Pray in your personal devotions, in your churches, and your home groups. Pray first for rain for Tuvalu. Then pray that the issues of climate change and rising sea levels are tackled.
  • Donate and respond to appeals to help the people of Tuvalu.
  • Become more aware of the causes of climate change, and of its impact on marginalised people.

Australia increases assistance

Australia is providing more water to the people of Tuvalu following a severe drought on the Pacific island.

Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles announced that Australia and New Zealand today delivered a shipment of 450,000 litres of water to Tuvalu’s main island of Funafuti.

“This much-needed water will fill government storage facilities and enable households to access more water in Tuvalu,” Mr Marles said.

“Australia has also provided two water delivery trucks to help distribute water to communities, schools and hospitals. This will meet the immediate water needs of the island.”

Tuvalu declared a state of emergency on September 29 2011 after a severe drought affected local food crops and led to water rations of 60 litres per household per day.

Mr Marles said Australia and New Zealand will provide a second shipment of 600,000 litres of water if the drought worsens.

This builds on earlier support from Australia, including the Australian Defence Force’s assistance to fly a large desalination unit from New Zealand to Tuvalu, capable of turning 50,000 litres of seawater a day into clean drinking water.

“This unit significantly increased water supply on Funafuti, including water delivered to schools and community water distribution centres, meaning children have now been able to return to school,” Mr Marles said.

Australia is also:

  • providing two desalination units capable of holding 10,000 litres of water per day, with the first due to arrive in Funafuti in November
  • co-funding a 40,000 litres per day desalination plant with the United Kingdom, the United States and the United Nations Development Programme, due to be operational in Funafuti in December
  • supporting an outer island needs assessment mission to ensure water, health and food needs across all of Tuvalu’s nine islands are being met
  • replenishing stocks used by the Tuvalu Red Cross, including water containers, hand sanitisers and other goods, to respond to the crisis.

Despite some rainfall in the past few days, forecasts indicate the chance of further rain will remain low. Australia will continue to assess the situation to determine if further assistance is needed.

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