World

Sinking Tuvalu prompts the question: Are you still a country if you’re underwater?

"We want to exist 100 years from now."

For residents of the low-lying islands, rising sea levels threaten their very existence as a nation. AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File


GLASGOW, Scotland – The top diplomat from the tiny Pacific island nation of Tuvalu got his point across – as he addressed the U.N. climate summit wearing a suit and tie, standing at a lectern, in knee-deep seawater.

The video clip, prerecorded in Tuvalu, went viral and illustrated the vulnerability of many of the small, low-lying island nations of the world.

“In Tuvalu, we are living the reality of climate change and sea-level rise, as you stand watching me today at COP26,” said Simon Kofe, the foreign minister. “We cannot wait for speeches, when the sea is rising around us all the time. Climate mobility must come to the forefront.”

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“Climate mobility” refers to the movement of people who are forced to leave their homes or livelihoods because of the effects of global warming. And the prospect of such movement across borders raises new questions about whether countries can maintain sovereignty when they are underwater.

Can little Tuvalu remain a country if all its people are forced to flee?

Kofe said in a separate video Tuesday that his government was planning for a “worst-case scenario where we are forced to relocate or our lands are submerged.”

He told Reuters that officials were exploring “legal avenues” to retain “ownership of our maritime zones” and “our recognition as a state under international law.”

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Tuvalu, population 12,000, lies in the Pacific Ocean midway between Hawaii and Australia. The average land elevation in the archipelagic state is just 6 feet 6 inches above mean sea level, and the water is rising at almost 0.2 inches each year.

In 2019, an inhabitant told a visiting reporter from the Guardian newspaper, “Tuvalu is sinking.” Waters that once were gin-clear are now cloudy with sand, residents said. Island staples such as taro and cassava are now imported, and rising seas have contaminated fresh groundwater supplies, making Tuvalu directly reliant on rainwater.

The foreign minister said his islands are sacred. “They were the home of our ancestors, they are the home of our people today, and we want them to remain the home of our people into the future,” Kofe said.

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For residents of the low-lying islands, rising sea levels – alongside higher ocean and air temperatures, coral bleaching, more-frequent flooding, more-intense cyclones and droughts – threaten their very existence as a nation.

The fundamental criteria of statehood, as set out in the 1933 Montevideo Convention and recognized in international law, is that a state must possess a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to conduct international relations. But what if a country no longer meets those criteria?

Many vulnerable nations could find their statehood jeopardized by rising waters and climate migration.

Alongside Maldives in the Indian Ocean, and Kiribati and Tuvalu in the Pacific, the Marshall Islands in the Central Pacific are one of four atoll nations on the planet.

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A World Bank report released last month examined survival scenarios for the Marshall Islands that envisioned more sea walls; raising the land and elevating buildings; reclaiming shallow lagoons; relocating people to highest ground or seeing people migrate to other atolls or abroad.

But World Bank researchers cautioned that the extent of future sea-level rise is unclear, in part because climate scientists – and island nations – do not know whether world leaders will limit future warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, which is the aspiration of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, or whether average global temperatures will soar 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, which is the planet’s current temperature path. This week, negotiators at COP26 focused on funding for “loss and damage” – unavoidable, irreversible harms caused by climate change – which has long been a rallying cry of civil society groups and vulnerable nations at international climate talks.

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Research has estimated that annual loss-and-damage financial needs in developing countries could hit $290 billion to $580 billion a year by 2030.

At the opening of the climate summit last week, Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley asked in a speech, “When will leaders lead?”

She said, “Our people are watching, and our people are taking note. Are we really going to leave Scotland without the commitment to ambition that is sorely needed to save lives and to save our planet? Or are we so blinded and hardened that we can no longer appreciate the cries of humanity? Today, we need a correct mix of voices, ambition and action.”

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Mottley, whose 166-square-mile island is the easternmost country in the West Indies, stressed that island nations will suffer early and hard because of climate change they did little to create. She insisted that wealthy nations must do more, and spend more, to help island peoples mitigate and adapt.

“We want to exist 100 years from now,” she said.

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