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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 January 2008, 17:53 GMT
Tuvalu struggles to hold back tide
By David Shukman
Environment correspondent, BBC News, Tuvalu

Wave pound the shoreline of Tuvalu (Image: BBC)


The fragile strips of green that make up the small islands of Tuvalu are incredibly beautiful but also incredibly vulnerable.

The group of nine tiny islands in the South Pacific only just break the surface of the ocean - but for how much longer?

During a King Tide, which is what the islanders call the highest tides of the year, waves rolling off the ocean can have a devastating effect.

The islands' main road is submerged and nearby homes are threatened by the rising waters.

"We have never seen this in the past," a concerned resident tells me. "We have never seen water coming in this far."

No respect

It is not just the shoreline that is at the mercy of the King Tide's sovereignty, the water also surges up from underground through the coral on which the islands are built.

Children playing in the floodwater (Image: BBC)
The floods are fun for children, but what does the future hold?

In the space of just an hour, the lowest areas are all flooded.

Everyone feels the impact; a priest has to step carefully through the waters on his way to conduct a funeral.

The higher the King Tides get, the harder it is to keep things going here. A woman tells me that she is unable to grow any food crops because the land has become too salty.

The sea water is poisoning the soil and people are nervous. "It makes me feel scared," another woman confesses. "What will happen to us in 10 years' time?"

Graphic representation of sea level variations (Eumetsat)

The rising waters are slowly creeping into the heart of these islands and slowly but effectively killing them off.

Water bubbles up in tiny streams; and everywhere you look, it just lies on the surface.

And the problem is getting worse. A local meteorologist tells me that the King Tides are getting higher, and it is a trend set to continue.

"The King Tides are getting worse and most of the coastal areas will be washed out," he forecasts for the coming decade.

Runway 'essential'

It is a gloomy prognosis for life on these shores. A typical high tide reaches about two-and-a-half metres, while a King Tide like this can be more than three metres.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecasts a rise of up to another half metre.

It is cold comfort for Tuvaluans, when the highest point of the islands reaches just about four-and-a-half metres above the encroaching waves.

David Shukman in Tuvalu

Each scenario will cost Tuvalu precious land. Only a small rise will see parts of the islands disappear.

This includes the runway, which is a vital lifeline to the outside world.

People here say there must be a technological fix if a rich country like UAE can build entirely new islands.

But the problem is that these islands are founded on coral which is porous; saving these islands will cost a fortune.

For the children, the floods are fun. However, for them to lead their lives on these islands will require massive international support.

But with a population of just 11,000 people, will the outside world think it is worthwhile?





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