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Monday, 4 March, 2002, 16:08 GMT
Tiny Pacific nation takes on Australia
Australian legal experts have warned the government to take seriously a challenge by the tiny, island nation of Tuvalu.

Tuvalu is under threat of sinking if sea levels rise due to climate change - and could be washed away within 50 years.

Its Prime Minister, Koloa Talake, has announced that Tuvalu and two other island nations, Kiribati and Maldives, plan to take legal action against major polluting countries.

Tuvalu facts
Nine atolls
Land area: 26 sq km
Population: 11,000
Population density: 403 people/sq km
Australia would be a major target of action in the International Court of Justice, he said.

"These islands used to be my playgrounds when I was 10-years-old but where are they?" the 60-year-old prime minister told a news conference on Sunday. "They are gone, disappeared, vanished."

Mr Talake, speaking to reporters at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Coolum, Australia, was disputing scientific studies that suggest there has as yet been no discernible rise in sea levels.

At Tuvalu's capital, Funafuti, a modern tide gauge installed by the Australian National Tidal facility in 1993 has found mean sea level there has neither risen nor fallen over the period.

Tackling polluters

Tuvalu is a group of nine tiny islands, with a land area about one-tenth the size of Washington DC and a total population of about 11,000 people. It is one of the world's lowest-lying nations, with no point higher than 4.5 metres above sea level.

It has already hired two law firms - one in the US and one in Australia - to look into taking action against those considered most liable for the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

As well as Australia, it is considering making claims against tobacco, oil and car manufacturing companies.

Sydney University law expert, associate professor Donald Rothwell, said Australia was an easy target for legal action because it fully accepted the court's jurisdiction.

"Australia is one of the easier countries to actually take to the international court of justice primarily because Australia accepts the court's jurisdiction without reservation," he told ABC radio.

Australia Institute executive director Clive Hamilton said Tuvalu's threat was a drastic measure, but one that highlighted how desperate the country felt.

"Tuvalu is one of the countries most affected by climate change and it's not surprising that they should have taken this step," he told ABC radio.

The United States and Australia have refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to reduce humanity's influence on the climate.

The United States has drawn up an alternative climate-change programme, supported by Australia but strongly opposed by environmental groups.

See also:

14 Feb 02 | Americas
Q&A: The US and climate change
14 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia 'not desperate' on asylum
13 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Sinking island urged to accept migrants
09 Oct 01 | Sci/Tech
Pacific islanders flee rising seas
12 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Net gains for Tuvalu
06 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
Tiny Tuvalu joins UN
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