The Pacific - Rising Sea Levels


This boomerang-shaped narrow strip of land is the Funafuti atoll. The capital, and one of nine islands comprising the remote nation of Tuvalu.

With total land area of 26 sq km and a population of 12,000, this is one of the smallest countries in the world. Its average elevation of two meters makes Tuvalu extremely vulnerable to storms and sea- level rise.

Tangi Leo, native of Funafuti:
“Before we used to run up and then run down to the beach to swim. Now I just sort of look. When there’s high tide, the land is just the same with the water.”

Tangi Leo grew up here in Funafuti and moved to Australia 20 years ago. She is visiting her homeland for a big family reunion.

Tangi Leo, native of Funafuti:
“The people that I used to know, a lot of them have already left the land. They moved; they migrated to New Zealand or Australia.”

People the world over migrate in search of a better life. But this is different. This is a story about people on two small Pacific Island nations being forced to move, not by conflict or natural disaster, but by the potential disappearance of their homeland under water.

Afele Pita, Permanent Representative of Tuvalu, United Nations:
“The issue is a matter of life or death.”

Tuvalu’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Afele Pita.

Afele Pita, Permanent Representative of Tuvalu, United Nations:
“But for us here in Tuvalu whatever development how fast development may take place that can be wiped overnight if sea level rises.”

With the ever increasing levels of the high tides, the catastrophe seems imminent.

People have started to leave the islands, abandoning their homes.

Most of Tangi’s family has left as well, like her brother Teakini Penaia.

Teakini Penaia, former Tuvalu pharmacist:
“I used to live with my brothers and sisters back in Auckland. A couple of years back I moved down to the south.”

Teakini used to work as a pharmacist in Tuvalu. He is now studying again to have his degree recognized in New Zealand.

Teakini Penaia, former Tuvalu pharmacist:
“There’s a big population of Tuvaluans living in West Auckland.”

Some left for economic reasons, others because of climate change, but they all try to preserve some aspects of their culture.

Teakini Penaia, former Tuvalu pharmacist:
“I think the majority of the people back in Auckland still carry on with their traditional way of life.”

But this is not the sun-drenched Tuvalu. This is Dunedin, one of New Zealand’s major urban areas, where temperatures rarely reach into the high 20s degrees Celsius.

Teakini Penaia, former Tuvalu pharmacist:
“Living in New Zealand is totally different. It takes years to adapt to the culture, the people that live in New Zealand.”

Teakini says he misses his homeland and wonders if his children will remember it. It’s a concern shared by the nearby island nation of Kiribati.

Anote Tong, President, Kiribati:
“It would be a very sad day when there will no longer be a country, a nation, a people called Kiribati.”

Anote Tong, the President of Kiribati, fears that his nation may become one of the first countries to fall victim to sea-level rise.

Anote Tong, President, Kiribati:
“We’re talking about people here. We’re not talking about polar bears. I think the polar bears are precious. I would not like to see them disappear but nor would I wish to see our people disappear.”

The president says his people have the next few decades to prepare for relocation.

Anote Tong, President, Kiribati:
“We are preparing our people; equipping them to be able to relocate if and when necessary with dignity as skilled people, not as second class citizens. We would not wish to see our people as climate change refugees.”

Sea-level rise and unusually big waves are threatening the Kiribati population of about 100 thousand people. They live on 33 atolls, scattered over a vast area around the Equator in the Pacific.

Like Tuvalu, Kiribati islands are made of corals and are extremely porous. Salt water surging from underground is poisoning the soil and killing these coconut trees on the main island of Tarawa.

Peter, native of Tarawa
“The coconut tree is one of the most important trees on our island because we can use it to build houses. We can use to make food from it and to have a drink.”

Beyond food and shelter, Peter and his friends Akato and Ann say there is even more at stake. They know leaving their homeland is inevitable.

Peter, native of Kiribati:
“We can see the rising of the sea level. When I see that it makes me feel scared because I know that one day our land will be lost.”

Ann, native of Kiribati:
“One thing that I notice is there’re a lot of people from Kiribati moving to New Zealand.”

Anote Tong, President, Kiribati:
“In time there will be this build-up of community, overseas Kiribati communities in different parts of different countries there is that core group of people from Kiribati who would make it easier for the rest to come for them to assimilate into the new environment.”

But the older generation in Kiribati is not willing to leave.

Anote Tong, President, Kiribati:
“If you were to ask me; and if you were to ask the elderly in Kiribati, the answer is no. They would wish to stay on, even die here.”

With the move, the Kiribati culture and ancient traditions could be lost.

Akato, native of Kiribati:
“We can lose our culture. We can lose everything we used to be and we can lose our tradition.”

Ann, native of Kiribati:
“I will still teach my children. I will teach them the way we used to live and just feed them with my culture.”

Just like the Tuvalu community, the Kiribati people hope to be able to live together.

Anote Tong, President, Kiribati:
“The best we can hope to have is to maintain the integrity of our culture. Whether we will be able to have our people settle all in one place I doubt it. What I’d like to see happen personally for us to maintain a nation of Kiribati somehow. We have to do that so that the new generation or generations of i-Kiribati people in different parts of the world will have somewhere to go to, to say that this is, this is what once was our nation.”