Reportage

We are all Tuvaluans

View images of Tuvalu featured in Edition 12: Hot Air at photographer Jocelyn Carlin's website.

 

TATOU NE TUVALU Katoa – "We are all Tuvaluans" is often used in Tuvalu as an expression of national unity, calling on islanders to pull together in the collective interests of their tiny, isolated and vulnerable country. It is also used by some environmentalists who understand that global warming and rising sea levels, while gravely threatening the existence of low-lying tropical island countries like Tuvalu, threaten us all.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006. It's going to be another hot and steamy day on Funafuti, the main atoll in Tuvalu. There is just the hint of a breeze, and the vague promise of a shower from the clouds to the north-east. This won't cool things down, just add to the humidity.

I'm standing in the middle of the widest part of Funafuti Atoll, near the airstrip that dominates this part of the island. Directly to the east, about 400 metres away, the coral rock and sand wall thrown up by a cyclone in late 1972 protects the atoll from surges. If it weren't for the breezy drone of the power station, I could hear the Pacific Ocean, rolling white coral rocks like bowling balls up and down the rocky, barren shore. I won't go out there unless I have to. It is scary and weird. You sense the brooding ocean is out to get the place.

To the west, up a paved lane, past the blue-roofed and white-walled three-storey Government Building, I can see the lagoon and, far away, the motu (islet) of Tepuka about twelve kilometres across Te Namo (the lagoon). Te Namo is placid this morning, its waves gently lapping the atoll's western shore.

Funafuti Atoll, viewed from space, looks like a boomerang. From the cockpit of the Air Fiji twin-engine, turbo-prop plane that makes the thrice-weekly two-and-a-half hour flight north to the tiny airport with the best destination code on the planet, FUN, Funafuti comes into view like a thin green snake laid almost south to north in the vast open ocean. It's twelve kilo-metres long, with motu at each end, and scattered along the western edge of the wide Te Namo. The atoll is about eight degrees south of the equator. There are no hills or mountains here, no rivers or permanent streams.

In 1897, the Australian scientist T.W. Edgeworth David led an expedition to Funafuti Atoll, then part of the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony – Polynesian Tuvalu was the southern, Ellice Islands; the northern Micronesian Gilberts is now Kiribati. Professor David wanted to test Charles Darwin's hypothesis that tropical atolls were perched and growing atop ancient volcanoes or mountains, so his team drilled holes deep into the centre of the atoll to partially confirm Darwin's theory. The nondescript spot – a small concrete circle with a hole in the middle tucked away near the hospital on a side road – is still called David's Drill or David's Hole, but I call it Mt Funafuti, much to the amusement of my Tuvaluan friends.

Tuvalu consists of nine low-lying islands with a total land area of twenty-six square kilometres. The name, taken at separation from the Gilbert Islands in 1975, means "eight standing together". The southernmost atoll in the group, Niulakita, has been re-inhabited more recently.

The national slogan, Tuvalu mo te Atua, means "Tuvalu for God", reflecting the islanders' strong Christian beliefs, with virtually all the population members of the Ekalesia Kelisiano Tuvalu (EKT), a protestant denomination based on the work of the London Missionary Society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The country has an estimated population of 11,500; just under half live on densely inhabited Funafuti, with a land area of less than three square kilometres. The problem of "urban drift" from the outer islands to the capital, increasing its population by a tenth in a decade, is significantly contributing to the country's challenges. Their home islands and extended family ties are central to Tuvaluans' identity, and so many people from the outer islands crowding Funafuti adds still more pressures on this atoll's environment and social fabric.

In every respect, Tuvaluan life is lived pretty close to the edge; either subsistence fishing, gathering natural or small plantation coconut, pandanus or breadfruit farming, or, more usually, a mixture of developing island Western-style living and traditional practices. The biggest employer is the Tuvaluan Government, the next biggest being a seafarer hire company that contracts 400 to 600 Tuvaluan men to crew cargo boats worldwide. Their remittances home help their families to live comfortable lives, but at the cost of long separations from wives and growing children. The average Tuvaluan family lives on about $1,200 a year, though many get more and some less.

This Wednesday morning, locals are starting to stir. The few who were sleeping on the airstrip have rolled up their taapa (woven coconut or pandanus fibre) mats and pillows and wandered back to their fales (open-sided, roofed, raised platforms) outside their houses for a little more sleep. They're not supposed to sleep on the airstrip, but it's one of the few places to catch a breeze on hot, still, tropical nights.

Solo, a man in his early twenties, walks towards me with a wicked-looking knife and a couple of bottles with woven string ties at their necks, smiles, bids me a cheery talofa ("hello") and starts climbing a coconut tree.

Along the road, locals are walking, or riding bicycles or small motorbikes. Children, some already in their crisp light-blue and white school uniforms, have been sent to the fusi (small co-op supermarket). Some folks are carrying large white plastic biscuit buckets filled with kitchen scraps and coconut meat and making their way to their pig pens along the seawall to the east.

High up in the coconut tree, Solo's busy, carefully paring back a frond stalk so the sap can flow better into the bottle he ties beneath to catch it. Two half-full bottles collected overnight are ready to be carried down. Locals use the sap, called toddy, to make a sweet dessert, a local liquor and for cooking.

Solo is whistling a rather tuneless song, and occasionally breaks into words.

"What are you singing?" I shout up at him.

"Oh, just a song," he says, in his quiet Tuvaluan way.

"What's it about?"

"It's a song to call the maidens," he grins.

I wonder what his young wife in their nearby house would make of this. Folks are passing as the day begins and we exchange waves or greetings.

The sun finally punches through the clouds to the east, bathing the atoll in slivers of bright white light, and I feel sweat starting to form on my back.

On the far side of the square, near the entrance to the Government Building, some men in overalls are sweeping up leaves and litter while a very bored policeman sits nearby watching. These are prisoners from Funafuti's gaol serving time for committing some of the few crimes serious enough to warrant custodial sentences. Most crime here is alcohol-related, and the worst offenders are unlicensed, often young, male drivers caught drink-driving.

Another challenge for Funafuti, since the roads were paved in 2002 using windfall money from leasing Tuvalu's dot tv internet country code, is the steady increase in vehicles. Not that there's anywhere much to drive to on an atoll this small, but locals seem to manage. More vehicles add to Funafuti's problems because, in the salt-saturated air, rust eats into the chassis, and abandoned cars and trucks litter the atoll, with some being used as part of the defences against sea surges from the lagoon.

Sema, a Fijian woman married to a man from Nukufetau, one of Tuvalu's outer islands, who works at the Filamona Lodge where I'm staying, comes to work, sees me writing, comes over and peers at the laptop screen. I want to get this just right, so I show my developing story to some locals. I'm a wordy palagi (white person, outsider) who's here to try to tell part of the current Tuvalu story.

"Oh, wow," Sema says. "That's good."

"Fakafeti lasi," I gratefully say, and return to the keyboard.

A bit later, Hilia Vavae comes by and also looks at my writing. She is the director of the Tuvalu Meteorological Office, housed in a white bungalow next to the power station on the eastern side of the atoll, and the local expert on Tuvaluan weather, with twenty years' experience. Her daily data is sent worldwide and added to three-day regional weather forecasts, and the fearsome climate calculations and simulations that fuel the scientific debates about global warming. She's happy too, so I'm satisfied I'm getting this right.

 

IN SIX DAYS, the highest predicted tide to hit Tuvalu in almost fifteen years will cause widespread local flooding. If you believed some reports about the country, locals should be huddled in fearful dread, counting the days until their beloved islands sink forever beneath the rising seas. This reporting drives my Tuvaluan friends nuts. "Parachute journalists," they mutter when this hype is published, raising their eyes upward in mixed annoyance and resignation.

Nobody's huddling in fear and dread. There are just Tuvaluans going about their everyday business.

Earlier this week, Radio Australia and ABC News Online reported the December 2005 findings from the South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project that showed that the seas around Tuvalu had risen about seven centimetres over the past thirteen years. The findings were hedged with scientific caveats, as these reports always are.

Seven centimetres' rise might not seem like much, but the highest point of land on this atoll is just 3.7 metres above mean high tide. The difference between the highest points of land here, which might be Mt Funafuti or a spot at one end of the airstrip, and the predicted high tide next week is the distance between my sandals and my knees.

With better internet access, and satellite television and radio being more common, Tuvaluans and visitors like me can more easily access the same news and online information taken for granted elsewhere.

High tides have been hitting these islands for far longer than the 2,000 years they have been inhabited. Coral atolls have been rising and disappearing for aeons. But scientific data and stories elders tell about the climate in living and oral memory, around which many island traditions are based, point to something strange – even ominous – occurring here and on other low-lying island countries.

If Tuvaluans are praying about the weather at all, they're praying there won't be a storm or a cyclone far away sending surges in this direction when the tide peaks. Tuvalu is outside "cyclone alley" in the south-western Pacific, and so the cyclones that form, menace and occasionally devastate Fiji, Samoa and Tonga to the south rarely hit. The worst cyclone to strike Tuvalu in living memory was Bebe in October 1972, which almost destroyed Funafuti. The country was directly affected, but not hit, by three cyclones in 1997. The worst casualty was a small motu called Tepuka sa Vili Vili out on the western edge of the lagoon, once capped with dense vegetation and ringed by dazzling coral sand, now a barren wave-assaulted brown rock.

Just past the southern end of the airstrip, in August 2002, a storm surge with three huge waves came out of the Pacific without warning and carved a swathe into the atoll 500 metres wide. The area was scoured back to coral rock, vegetation swept into tangled heaps. The video of the waves is shocking and locals who witnessed it were terrified. Luckily, nobody was injured and no houses or fales were damaged. When I saw the damage four months later, I was shocked. But the ocean always spooks me as it incessantly batters, nibbles and sucks at the atoll.

Yesterday morning, I walked along the airstrip and back up Tuvalu Road, greeting locals on the street and in their gardens. A teenager straddled a row of cabbage seedlings, dipping a tin can into a large bucket and carefully watering the plants while a gaggle of laughing children watched me watching him. His mother proudly showed me the cucumber vines, with bright yellow flowers, wrapping themselves over the trellis in front of their door. Next door, some green and yellow tomatoes were peeping from the neighbour's vines. Along the road, locals were carefully sweeping up leaves and fronds from the pandanus, breadfruit and coconut palms, and putting them in bags to use as mulch on their own gardens. Almost every house had a garden, something I had not seen during my last visit here late in 2004.

The sea is not the only threat to Tuvaluans, and this is part of the country's survival strategy. The diet, heavy with imported foods supplemented by seafood, local produce like pig meat, coconuts, breadfruit, taro and a large, slow-growing tuber called pulaka, contributes to the high incidence of obesity, hypertension and diabetes. Now vegetables are more abundant, and locally grown, the product of a Taiwanese-funded demonstration nursery and garden from which the government distributes seeds and information on gardening.

But they struggle to grow their version of potatoes, pulaka, as successfully as they once could, for reasons I'll explain.

Yesterday afternoon, after school, the village of Vaikau seemed to be awash with children, playing, riding bikes and filling the place with their squeals and laughter. On the veranda outside the church, a pastor was leading some kids in a Bible study, all hunched over their large and well-thumbed scriptures, and next door, in a maneapa (open-sided meeting house), smaller kids were amusing themselves while a Tuvaluan matron tried to keep their attention long enough to get a few "good words" into their young heads – without too much success, it seemed to me.

Keeping Tuvalu's strong Christian practices alive is also part of their survival strategy. They start very young.

Later, in the slowly gathering twilight, the whole airstrip, from end to end, over a kilometre, was full of people. A vigorous soccer match was underway opposite the prime minister's residence, then a touch football game, then some public servants from rival departments hard at volleyball. And everywhere, the laughing children.

This week, there's a workshop on the Tuvaluan National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA), a local version of a global program to help especially vulnerable countries respond to the potentially terminal challenges they face. Last week, the World Wildlife Fund Pacific led a workshop presenting the global and regional view of global warming and its effects in the Pacific. This week's workshop adds local perspectives. Representatives have come in on one of Tuvalu's two cargo boats from the eight outer islands, a fairly rare gathering from across this widely scattered island country. Tuvaluan society has been picked apart, every aspect analysed, and plans are being developed, discussed in typical Polynesian consensus fashion, and slowly implemented.

The gardens in almost every yard on Funafuti are part of the NAPA, as are improvements in seawalls to protect the vulnerable atoll shores, steady improvements in freshwater collecting and storage, attempts to deal with the serious solid-waste problem depressingly obvious especially at both ends of the atoll's roads, testing of composting toilets as replacements for septic tanks, a re-visiting of solar energy as a supplement to ever more expensive diesel-generated electricity, reviewing the efficiency of the several government-owned corporations and informed and sensitive attention to the threat of HIV/AIDS in this very conservative Christian country. There are about eight or nine HIV-positive Tuvaluans, probably returning seafarers, but nobody talks much about who might be infected, though all are well aware of the threat the disease poses.

The effects of global warming here are not spectacular. They're creeping and insidious, weakening the already fragile fabric that enables this tiny atoll society to exist. Add more severe storms, or periodic – and entirely natural – higher-than-average tides, and the Tuvaluan environment could start to disintegrate. Insensitive human intrusions into the environment, and steadily more severe population pressure, don't help either. This is what NAPA aims to address.

 

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 2006. It's raining this morning. But it's not a raging tropical storm that can hit Funafuti with sudden ferocity, a black wall of cloud rising from the sea and pouring thick rain on the atoll accompanied by deafening thunder and sharp cracks of spectacular lightning, and then pass as quickly as it came.

This morning's rain is gently soaking, the kind of rain many of the very religious Tuvaluans pray for. But much of this rain will turn into poison. Explaining why is a good way to explain some of the effects of global warming on this tiny country.

Tropical atolls often have a lens-shaped freshwater table just beneath the sandy, salty soil surface into which rain percolates, suspended above denser seawater that also seeps beneath the atoll. Many atoll societies drill into this lens and pump the water up. Local vegetation draws on this water as well.

In October 1942, World War II reached Funafuti and two outer islands when American forces occupied them, setting up port facilities and buildings, and blasting deep channels through reefs. On Funafuti Atoll, pulakapits and hundreds of coconut and pandanus trees were dug up to make way for the first airstrip; rock and soil were taken from several large pits around the atoll. The "Seabees" assured locals they were only borrowing the material and the loan would be repaid.

These large pits are now filled with water and rubbish. They are called "borrow pits", or taisala, and because of population pressure and severe land scarcity, are now surrounded by houses or shacks. Some are even built over the pits. They are shattered parts of the atoll, and allow seawater to seep into the freshwater beneath.

More recent building, and steadily increasing septic-tank construction, increased the damage, and stresses, on the atoll. Add the stress from more and increasingly severe storms, surges from the open ocean and slightly but steadily rising sea levels, and you can see why Funafuti is a place where the rain turns into poison.

Freshwater security has been one of the major topics for discussion at this week's NAPA workshop – as are the problems pulaka farmers face trying to grow their large, slow-maturing equivalent of potatoes. The tubers are grown in pits a metre or more deep and the plants are carefully and expertly mulched and tended over two to three years until the large tubers can be harvested.

Now the pulaka pits, which you can see in a few places on Funafuti Atoll, with the tuber's distinctive, elephantine, dark green leaves, are suffering saltwater intrusion, causing yellowy tinges on the leaves, rotting the pulaka from beneath and stunting the growth of those plants that survive.

In the afternoon, I visit the Secretary to Government, Panapasi Nelesone, the country's most senior civil servant, the man responsible for Funafuti's preparations for next week's higher-than-average tide and its long-term economic and social survival. The country's Disaster Committee has already made preparations for evacuations from especially vulnerable houses, relocating evacuees in local Maneapa if the need arises.

While the predictions on paper suggest a peak of 3.26 metres at 5.30pm on Tuesday, February 28, with a new moon rising, actual projections based on January's peak, which exceeded the projections, and more recent sea-level data, are pointing to a peak closer to 3.4 metres. Nobody seems to be too worried.

 

LATE MORNING, FEBRUARY 25. Saturday's a day for shopping, washing and cooking on Funafuti Atoll. The larger fusi in the central village of Fongafale is busy. Shoppers balance large bags of flour or rice on their motorbikes. Children are everywhere. Women are doing the washing, airing bedding on mats in the sunshine, clothes swinging from lines strung between coconut or pandanus palms in the almost non-existent breeze.

Slathered in 40+ sunscreen, with hat firmly planted on my head, I'm steadily regaining my sense of balance as I tool north up Funafuti Road on a small, single-gear motorbike that sounds like a large mosquito.

The breeze of movement is welcome; it's ferociously hot this morning. Nick, the husband of a local journalist friend of mine, and a mate, drive by and tell me they're heading to the end of the atoll to get some coconuts. I agree to meet them there later.

The atoll gets thinner the further north you go, so I see more of the Pacific Ocean on my right, through gaps between houses and fales, and Te Namo on my left, with houses, fales, and pig pens built precariously close to the usually calmer water.

Along the way, I see another friend, Ben, from the Government Information Technology Office – real dot tv, as opposed to the other websites with tv domain names leased from the Tuvaluan Government through the US e-commerce and security corporation, Verisign. This agreement helped pay for the paved roads such as the one I'm riding on this morning, and brings in about US$2 million ($2.7 million) a year in overseas income for Tuvalu's tiny, US$11 million economy.

Ben's wreathed in smoke from an earth oven, an umo, he's tending on the narrow lagoon shore just off the road, the pleasant smoke from smouldering coconut husks heating the white stones in the shallow pit wafting with him as he walks towards me.

"Talofa, Ben! What are you doing?"

"Killed a pig," he replies, smiling, pointing at the gutted and dressed pig draped over a low tree branch ready to be buried under the umo's hot stones.

"It's our daughter's first birthday party tonight," he says. "Would you like to come?"

Children's first birthdays are celebrated with feasts and great joy here. Though medical care has improved enormously, not so long ago a child's first birthday was a good sign they would survive to adulthood. Ben's spontaneous invitation is typically Tuvaluan, and I gratefully accept.

He waves me off and I continue my journey north up Funafuti Road. Driving around Funafuti is like driving on Australian country roads. Everybody has a nod, a wave or a cheery smile as you pass.

Along the way, I see graves of Tuvaluans. Many are obviously very respectfully tended, pointing to the role ancestors play in Tuvaluan society, linking the living with their past in the central core of Tuvaluan existence,Te Fenua, the people, their culture, their island or even their particular part of their home island, past, present, with the children being their future.

Seeing Nick's car parked on the roadside near a thick plantation of very tall coconut trees, I pull over and wander into the knee-deep grass and welcome shade to find him carefully studying the palms to see which one is worth climbing today.

Behind me, over the narrow bitumen road, the relentless Pacific, with the tide just on the turn towards rising, is roiling against the atoll. The still blue-green Te Namo peeps through the trees and undergrowth in front. In the cool shade, a few mosquitoes seek out the unusual change in their Tuvaluan blood diet: me.

This area, and several others like it towards the ends of the atoll, serves as a local commons, where anybody can come and help themselves to coconuts, pandanus and leaves used for weaving mats, garlands, baskets and decorations when there's a fatele, a lively Tuvaluan celebration. The commons is respected, so nobody's greedy, and the area is thankfully free of rubbish.

Nick wraps some rope around his feet, hops up, plants his feet against the trunk of a palm and shimmies up. I move safely away to watch as he twists the green, head-sized nuts loose to fall with a loud thud below. With a dozen nuts on the ground, he shimmies down, unties his feet, husks one on a steel spike he's planted in the ground and hands it to me.

"Fakafeti," I reply, reaching for a pen from my shirt pocket to poke out one of the nut's eyes. Natural container carefully opened, I put the hole to my mouth, tip my head back and enjoy one of nature's true gifts.

 

SUNDAY MORNING, FEBRUARY 26. It's good manners on Funafuti Atoll for palagi to attend church, so I'm outside the Fongafale Church dressed in my sandals, sulu, white shirt and blue tie, nodding to folks wandering along the road to the biggest EKT church on the island.

Paying my respects to the pastor and his wife before the service, I discuss with them how locals are thinking about the looming high tide. He's not worried, saying God will protect the island and its people, and his wife nods in agreement. Many, especially older or more devout, Tuvaluans explicitly believe God's promise to Noah to never again flood the Earth, so talk of sea-level rise caused by global warming terminally threatening Tuvalu's very existence some time in the future is dismissed as palagi stuff.

The EKT, however, like all theologically literate Christians, also teach that bad stewardship of God's Earth is causing global warming and sea-level rises. At the NAPA workshop, another, younger EKT pastor attended, not just to open and close daily proceedings with prayer and say grace before lunch, but as a representative of a key Tuvaluan institution with a vital role in its survival. The consequences of bad stewardship of the Earth are close to home on Funafuti -– with serious solid waste problems, rubbish dumps at both ends of the island, rusting vehicle hulks on the roadsides, garbage fouling the water-filled taisala.

The service is in Tuvaluan, and the sermon from Exodus. The pastor tells the worshippers how, in spite of everything, Moses steadfastly trusted in God to bring his people to the Promised Land. In the closing announcements, the pastor reminds his people that this week will bring very high tides and that the church will assist the disaster authorities, and asks for prayers that the weather remains calm.

While not disbelieving of the power of prayer, I also take science seriously, so later that calm Sunday afternoon, I braved the ferocious heat, walked across the blindingly bright airstrip, sandals crunching on the packed dry path to the Met office front door, and checked out the latest three-day forecast in the blessedly cool air-conditioned white bungalow: continuing fine, hot, light winds from the north-west or east, and a few passing showers – more of the same weather.

I walked back towards the airstrip and came across the weirdest sight I have ever seen. Only a few minutes before, I'd walked along a hot, dry, packed sandy track; now water was bubbling up through cracks in the track, spreading along the ground. I could hear the "blip, burble, pop" of the bubbling and seeping from the larger cracks.

The water was flowing across the track where I was standing in stunned amazement, deep enough to lap my sandals, my toes washed by water too hot to tolerate. The fearsome heat from the sun was all around me and now hot salty water was oozing as well.

I'd seen video and still pictures of this occurring outside the Met office before, and been told about it by witnesses, but to be standing in the middle of it was genuinely astonishing. I had to document this myself, so I ran back to my hotel room, grabbed my cameras, shouted for colleagues to join me, and ran back across the airstrip.

By the time we got back, the track was awash, the Met office's front yard rapidly filling, sheets of water forcing their way up and spreading south into the power station's compound, and north towards the Public Works Department depot. We waded in foot-deep, then ankle-deep, and then mid-shin-deep warm water to record the seepage.

Bemused locals, who'd seen all this before, were gathering on the airstrip to watch us and, yet again, see parts of their island inundated.

As arranged, a driver and a truck from the hotel found us and we jumped aboard and headed north towards a taisala and a nearby maneapa we'd heard was especially low-lying. Sure enough, water was lapping out of the flooded taisala along a side road and, across the pond, agitated pigs were grunting and squealing in their pens while their owners watched in case rescue was needed.

The Sunday tide was predicted to peak at 4pm at 3.1 metres and, as it rose, it oozed through the shattered atoll.

The calm weather, with no breeze pushing the waves, meant that the tide height would determine whether or not there was flooding as the lagoon overflowed its low bank. To the east, the ocean was kept at bay by the old berm tossed up by Cyclone Bebe in October 1972.

Along Funafuti Road, we glimpsed yards with water pooling in them, watched by locals worried their homes might be flooded, while life went on as normal elsewhere.

Along the narrowing road I'd travelled yesterday, Te Namo lapped dangerously against the shore, but it only broke through at one place. Houses planted on, and in some cases, even over the northern taisala, appeared to be safe, but a couple were in danger closer to the road.

On Sunday night, many Tuvaluans on Funafuti prayed that this was the worst they would experience over the next few days. At the Met office, Hilia Vavae and her staff, having waded to work through their flooded front yard, and studied the real-time data from the Australian-provided tidal monitor at the port complex to confirm the 3.1-metre prediction had been exceeded by a couple of centimetres, predicted Tuesday's peak tide would be even higher and that the weather would remain benign.

 

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 28. Bright yellow sunshine bathes the Atoll, a gently cooling breeze caresses it and rustles the palm trees, and, with the tide approaching its lowest, the lagoon's colour ranges from bright green close to shore to deep blue. A few locals are lazing in the shallows or tending to their boats for a fishing trip later today. This glorious sight is tropical atoll paradise travel-brochure stuff.

But there was no glory for several households on the edge of a northern taisala last night, because, with a slightly higher tide peaking at over

3.2 metres just before 5pm, polluted water flooded into their homes, and they were evacuated by the Red Cross. Seawater seepage occurred around the atoll, but Te Namo and the Pacific did not break through to cause any serious damage. Some locals told how they'd caught fish washed into their kitchens from the overflowing taisala.

Today's the day, according to the predictions, that Tuvalu will experience the highest tide between 1990 and 2016, at 3.26 metres at about 5.30pm.

The Met office folks say the persistent high-altitude convergence over the country is making the weather benign, but some Tuvaluans no doubt believe Te Atua (The Almighty) heard their prayers and blessed them with good weather.

Funafuti's thin lifeline to the south, its thrice weekly Air Fiji flights, was severed again today. The flight was cancelled, this time due to vandalism at this end. Just south of the airstrip, the BBC crew that's here shooting segments for nature documentaries, has set up a time-lapse camera on a concrete slab near the entrance to a small cluster of houses and fales near the Assemblies of God church and hall.

Getting some "before" pictures, we head further south to where Te Namo's broken through near the end of the road. Only fifteen minutes have passed, but the little village is now deeply awash, with children running about pushing small pieces of wood through the flood like toy motor boats, watched by stoic adults hoping it doesn't rise any higher.

Further north, the road is awash and I force the car through the water in low gear, past adults up to their shins and playing kids. They've never seen it so high here, they tell me as I wade back.

Out along the long airstrip, the sports teams look like clusters of ants, occasionally tossing up splashing water as a player chases a ball to the flooded verges.

The Taiwanese garden supervisor is anxious about the seepage into his gardens. Earlier he soaked the place with fresh water to try to protect the plants.

More flooding scattered along Funafuti to the north. I'm reminded of storms back home, where some suburbs can be flooded or damaged, while nearby, evenings are entirely normal. Rather strange, driving north through 'suburban' Fongafale with its yellow street lights, towards flooded taisala and more scattered, local flooding seeping around some lower parts.

At the Met office, its front yard again awash in shin-deep water lapping at the front step, Hilia accesses the raw data from the tide monitor at the port complex, and exclaims that this has been a record high tide for Funafuti – just over 3.438 metres, exactly as she predicted.

We say goodnight and wade and then walk home, grateful to either the benign weather or God's benevolence, or both, that this high tide left Tuvalu and Funafuti relatively unscathed.

 

FRIDAY AFTERNOON, MARCH 3. A late afternoon tropical storm is drenching Funafuti Atoll, pouring thick rain across the island from even thicker, darker clouds that blew in from the north-west.

The fresh rainwater will quickly disappear once the storm passes, topping up the water tanks, percolating into the polluted water table beneath the atoll and turning into poison beneath the ground.

The Prime Minister, Hon Maatia Toafa, and the Secretary to Government, Panapasi Nelesone, watch the storm with us and chat about the week and its record high tides at a time when international attention is increasingly focusing on global warming and the related rises in sea levels. They know that they cannot rely on prayer alone, and are committed to plans to ensure the survival of Tuvalu and its people.

The extremely high tides this week have nothing to do with global warming and sea-level rise, even though the seas have risen slightly over the years of detailed measurements. But the attention paid to global warming makes the world more acutely aware of the plight of those living in the vast Pacific Ocean.

Maybe the sustained active convergence zone that made the local weather so benign can partially be attributed to global warming, but the models used are just not sensitive enough to be useful even over a large area like Tuvalu's 900,000 square kilometre exclusive economic zone.

If the extreme tides had coincided with a storm like the one that ended the week, there would have been much worse flooding and more damage. Global warming and its predicted effects on Tuvalu will weaken an already fragile environment vulnerable to very high tides, storms and sea surges, with damage amplified by erosion, groundwater pollution and seepage, loss of vegetation and weakened reefs. Tuvaluans with sympathetic palagi assistance are not waiting for this to happen. Instead they are struggling to ameliorate the worst effects and develop a long-term survival plan, improving the health and education of the children and providing them with the means to draw on the best the world has to offer. 

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