Tuvalu Battles Rising Seas and Climate Change Displacement

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Tuvalu Battles Rising Seas and Climate Change Displacement

Tuvalu is an independent island nation within the British Commonwealth. The nation comprises nine islands of thinly populated atolls and has a total population of around 11,500 as of 2021 on a 26 km² total land area. Tuvalu is low-lying like other Pacific Nations like Fiji, Marshall Islands, and Kiribati.

The atoll nation sits just a few meters above sea level; its highest elevation is no more than 4.5 meters above sea level, making it highly vulnerable to the climate change effect of sea level rise. Local politicians and climate advocates have been campaigning against climate change, and rising sea levels could easily swamp the nation, displacing its residents and wiping away its infrastructure and economy entirely.

Life in Tuvalu is both simple and challenging. The island’s lack of streams and rivers means it relies on rainwater for drinking and freshwater supply. Coconut palms are ubiquitous in the islands, providing the nation with an export product called copra, a dried coconut kernel. Rising sea levels are saturating soils with salty water, making it harder for Tuvaluans to farm or grow crops.

Aside from the looming threat of physical damage and loss from climate change, Tuvalu could lose its culture. For Pacific Islanders, the land is more than just a place to live; it is also a foundation of their cultural and spiritual well-being.

As these island nations are scattered in the vast Pacific Ocean, these people have a long tradition of sea voyagers—journeying from one island to another, making the land and ocean their homeland. Their connection to the environment—the land and the sea—creates the Pacific Islanders’ unique sense of identity and collective belonging.

The effects of climate change and natural disasters in Tuvalu can bring overwhelming outcomes and necessitate a plan to mitigate or adapt to these impacts.

Climate mitigation means avoiding and reducing GHG emissions that are warming the planet and raising sea levels. On the other hand, implementing adaptation measures involves improving coastal protection in areas vulnerable to sea level rise and coastal inundation; however, when these measures prove ineffective because of escalating and intensifying weather events and disasters, relocation planning can be another option for Tuvaluans.

Lisepa Paenui is a 32-year-old Tuvaluan pursuing a Master’s in environmental law at Sydney’s University of New South Wales. The Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project supports her scholarship. Lisa is passionate about climate justice for her country and wants to see traditional environmental knowledge reflected in their local law reform.

Growing up in Tuvalu, she sees traditional knowledge, the ability of her people to “read the sky, the ocean, and the environment” to know when to fish, to plant what crops during which season, and to warn of strong winds. But extreme weather, such as the 2015 Tropical Cyclone Pam, can bring such devastation that it could change their people’s way of life. The cyclone has affected almost half of their population as seawater flooded the mainland island, making it impossible for the people to grow their traditional crops.

Lisepa believes that her people’s diaspora can help preserve their culture, customs, and traditions. “Not everyone in my generation is going to stay here and fight. Many of us want to move; if the home isn’t somewhere we will succeed, it is unfair to our generation. Those who have the opportunity to leave should be able to,” Lisepa added.

The Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project is financed by the Green Climate Fund (US$36 million) and the Government of Tuvalu (US$2.9 million). The seven-year project is “contributing to strengthening the resilience of one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change and rising sea levels.

Implemented by the UN Development Programme in partnership with the Government, the project is improving coastal protection in key locations on Funafuti, Nanumea and Nanumaga islands. While new measures will act as a buffer during storms, the project also strives to build the capacity of national and island governments and local communities in adapting to climate change in the longer term.”

Tuvalu’s Relocation Treaty with Australia

On 9 November 2023, Australia and Tuvalu signed the world’s first climate resettlement treaty, the Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union Treaty. This treaty will allow Tuvaluan citizens facing displacement from climate change to immigrate to Australia.

Under the Falepili Union treaty, Australia commits to Tuvalu’s safety—including through a special visa arrangement for Tuvalu citizens to migrate to Australia—by boosting its development assistance and supporting Tuvalu’s climate adaptation efforts. In return, Tuvalu will mutually agree with Australia on any security and defence partnerships it concludes with other states. Both countries also commit to protecting and promoting each other’s collective security and sovereignty (Grare & Reuter, 2023).


Reading the sky and sea: climate justice for a brighter future. (2023 December 19). Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project. Retrieved from https://tcap.tv/news/reading-the-sky-and-sea-climate-justice-for-a-brighter-future

Tuvalu country profile. (2024, February 26). BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-16340072

Kolendo, A. (2023, March 20). Beyond Climate Science: Cultural Loss in the Pacific Islands. Earth.Org. Retrieved from https://earth.org/climate-change-pacific-islands

Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union treaty. Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Retrieved from https://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/tuvalu/australia-tuvalu-falepili-union-treaty

Grare, F., & Reuter, M. (2023, December 6). More than just a climate deal: The Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union treaty and the EU’s potential contribution to the Pacific. European Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from https://ecfr.eu/article/more-than-just-a-climate-deal-the-australia-tuvalu-falepili-union-treaty-and-the-eus-potential-contribution-to-the-pacific/

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