Last Big Day in Tuvalu…Taking Climate Change to Heart

Last night we were invited to the opening reception of the “High Level Dialogue on the Tropical Cyclone Pam Recovery & Vulnerability Reduction Plan.” Representatives of the “donor partner countries” were being hosted by Tuvalu, to share about the effects of last March’s cyclone, and of course it was a forum for asking for additional assistance. Representatives/delegations were here from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, India, the E.U., the United States, plus representatives of various United Nations agencies, the World Bank, and I’m sure there were others.

We arrived soaking wet from a downpour that began just as we got into the dinghy. I felt rather out of place. But we got to chat with the Prime Minister again, and we had a very informative chat with his wife. She explained that there was an extremely high “king tide” a decade or so ago, that flooded many areas, and raised the salt water level under the ground. Coconut and banana trees, which have shallow roots, survived; but the breadfruit trees died. Now breadfruit trees are growing again; they have planted them in raised beds.

She also spoke about traditional handicrafts. Unlike most Pacific islands, there are none for sale here. She explained that traditionally the handicraft skills were kept within a family, and passed from mother to daughter. But now most girls are busy with school, and many go off to study abroad. The elder women will not teach the skills to girls other than their daughters, and their daughters are busy, absent, or not interested. The skills/crafts are dying out. So she is championing an effort to invite the elders with the skills to come together and teach girls, beyond the family boundary. Hopefully having her support behind this effort will lead to acceptance of this new way.

I had the thought at the time that the Tuvalu culture is already fading, unrelated to climate change — that maybe there isn’t much here worth preserving. But that thought was to be changed 24 hours later…

Today was the actual “high level dialogue,” and we hoped there would be an opportunity for Doina to present the PM with a BPO plaque, and say a few words. So Bob, Dan and I went in tow with her to the morning session (and morning tea). I could never be a diplomat! I wouldn’t have the patience. So many agencies and countries and policies and bureaucracy and grant hurdles and people to thank without slighting anyone. There is $15 billion pledged to a Green Climate Fund, and Tuvalu will be applying for a grant for a few million. But first they are applying for a smaller grant for funding for the staff and resources needed to apply for the bigger grants…

Immediate disaster recovery aid, medium term goals, long term goals. Sea walls are wanted. Storm proof buildings. Safer access to outlying islands in storm conditions. Training for local tribal leaders, who will have to take the lead in emergencies when communications with the main island/government are out. Questions about how to handle the loss of a family’s land — not property damage, but their land washing away. Should they be compensated? There is no legislation covering that situation presently.

I found all this overwhelming…the complexity of the problems…

When there was a break in the rain I stepped out, as we were planning to leave for Vanuatu today. But I had a weather powwow with Bill — not about the windy/rainy weather here, but about the low pressure system forming near Vanuatu. When we leave here there is no other reasonable place to go, and we could be sailing right into a tropical depression. The forecast looks like it is better if we wait a day, if you believe forecasts five days out… We decided to stay put until tomorrow and take another look at the forecast in the morning.

Meanwhile Doina succeeded in doing her presentation to the PM, in front of all the High Levelers. And this evening we all attended the traditional singing and dancing being done in their honor. Now THAT was worth staying for! There were groups from two islands performing, and it was set up almost like a competition — one group at one end of the hall, the second group at the other end, and they would take turns performing. The styles were similar. A relatively simple song/dance would start, almost as if it were spontaneous. At the end of a short song, they would act as though they were done, briefly, and then take it up again one key higher and with more intensity. This would repeat until you thought they must be done, but it would start again with a fever pitch. The voices were beautiful, the drumming was powerful, the dancing was elegant.

They have a custom here — if you appreciate the singing/dancing you walk up to the performers and spray them with perfume! The PM’s wife led the charge of sprayers. Also others were welcome to join the line of dancers. Some of the cabinet ministers seemed to have allegiances to one island or the other, and they would dance with them. The PM also. And some of the foreign delegates would join the dance, notwithstanding that they didn’t know the moves. How cool is that!?

The energy grew and grew, and then they were done. The deputy PM got up and said, “Some ask why we want to remain in our Tuvalu homeland. THIS is why! We want to be able to dance for you.” I was choked up by this. I get it that if (when?) these people become “climate change refugees” their culture will rapidly erode. If the world chips in with funding for sea walls that make these islands habitable for another couple of generations, is that worth the cost? Facing this conundrum directly, with the people’s voices still echoing inside, could break your heart.

Raised bed for breadfruit tree, to keep roots above the salinated water table.
Raised bed for breadfruit tree, to keep roots above the salinated water table.
Where the action was today.
Where the action was today.
Opening session of the High Level Dialogue on the TC Pam Recovery & Vulnerability Reduction Plan
Opening session of the High Level Dialogue on the TC Pam Recovery & Vulnerability Reduction Plan
The High Levelers
The High Levelers
Dancing on the left...
Dancing on the left…
Dancing on the right.
Dancing on the right.

As you know it is nearly impossible to upload video. I did manage to upload a short clip that can give you a flavor of the dancing, though it does not convey the ever increasing energy in the hall! The crowd seated on the floor to the left behind the dancers are the singers and drummers.

For another perspective on our time in Tuvalu, see Doina’s post on the Cornell Sailing web site:

2 thoughts on “Last Big Day in Tuvalu…Taking Climate Change to Heart”

  1. Hi Zeke
    I found your images of Tuvalu while doing climate change research for Yale University. Your images are stunning and made an emotional connection with my fellow researchers.

    Thank you for all that you have done bringing attention to Oceania’s plight.


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