Could Tuvalu maintain its sovereignty in the face of rising sea levels?
With rising sea levels expected to submerge Tuvalu by 2100, an official says, "we should always be able to remember Tuvalu as it is, before it disappears."
What will happen to Tuvalu if it sinks into rising sea levels?
When Tuvalu vanishes beneath rising seas, its diaspora will seek a new home, which could be a virtual version of the tiny Pacific nation. Tuvalu's 12,000 inhabitants are concerned about the future as global warming threatens to submerge the island nation by the end of the century.
Tuvaluans needed "something they can hold on to," said Dr. Eselealofa Apinelu, Tuvalu's former attorney general and current high commissioner to Fiji, at the State of the Pacific conference on Thursday.
Tuvalu and the metaverse
"It's like the last resort," she explained.
"When the unfortunate happens and Tuvalu appears to truly vanish, I believe the idea is to preserve it, to conserve it in a state where future Tuvaluans can look into it... that's the digitized idea." "However, we can't digitize people."
“It's simple to talk about the land. We need to involve humans, which is something we're still thinking about - how to deal with people in that context."
Apinelu urged countries, including Australia, to provide Tuvaluans with easier access in the meantime so that they can explore other potential homes before the rising tides force them to migrate.
"We believe that our shared responsibilities and values can really help a person settle properly and respect the laws of individual countries," she said.
However, they must first gain access to those countries in order to determine where they can make a decent living and find a decent future.
Australia and New Zealand have been the island’s closest partners, providing education and job opportunities but the immigration laws are not simple or easy. Tuvalu wishes that the laws were more accommodating to smaller islands.
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The Legal Battle for Tuvalu
Other conference speakers, including ANU's development policy center's professor Stephen Howes, stated that the government's Pacific Engagement Visa, which will begin next year, will provide permanent visas to Pacific islanders.
However, those visas will be distributed on a pro-rata basis, with priority given to smaller nations such as Tuvalu and Kiribati facing existential climate crisis threats.
While many will apply for the visas for economic reasons, it is a "lifeline" for people from smaller islands, according to Akka Rimon, an ANU Ph.D. candidate and former Kiribati government official. Tuvalu's foreign minister, Simon Kofe, stated last year that his country was looking into legal ways to continue to exist even if it was no longer a state.
Tuvaluans, according to Apinelu, are concerned about the future and future generations who will need to find a place to live.
"It's easier to pack up a whole nation at once and put it somewhere if we can slowly allow people to migrate at their own pace according to the laws of the individual countries they want to migrate to," she said.
Tuvalu's foreign minister said on Tuesday that the Pacific island nation is looking into legal options to maintain ownership of its maritime zones and recognition as a state even if it is completely submerged due to the climate crisis.
The Fate of Tuvalu
"We're actually imagining a worst-case scenario in which we're forced to relocate or our lands are submerged," said Minister Simon Kofe in an interview with Reuters.
"We're looking into legal avenues where we can retain ownership of our maritime zones and international recognition as a state." So those are the steps we are taking in the future," he explained.
Images of Kofe standing knee-deep in the sea while recording a speech for the UN Cop26 climate summit have been widely shared on social media in recent days, gratifying the tiny island nation that is pushing for aggressive action to limit the impact of climate change.
"We didn't expect it to go viral the way it has in the last few days." We've been very pleased with that, and hopefully it conveys the message and highlights the challenges that Tuvalu is currently facing," Kofe said.
Kofe stated that he delivered the video address in an area that was once dry land and that Tuvalu was experiencing significant coastal erosion. When asked what Tuvaluans think about rising sea levels, Kofe said some of the older generations are content to sink with the land, while others are fleeing. "One thing is clear: the people have a very strong connection to their land," Kofe said.
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