Every time my Air Pacific flight approaches Tuvalu – an atoll nation consisting of nine inhabited islands – and I look through the window down at the narrow strips of land, my mind wanders back in time to the first Polynesian people who embarked on a long voyage more than 2,000 years ago. I don’t know what drove them to endure the hardship of traveling across the vast ocean, but I do know what stopped them once they reached the land that is now known as Tuvalu: fresh water.
But, as climate change impacts rainfall patterns and rising sea levels increase the salinity of groundwater, the water that lured Polynesians to Tuvalu can now be a reason that drives their descendants away from their ancestral lands.
Tuvaluans can no longer rely on drinking groundwater and depend almost entirely on rainwater collected and stored in tanks. In 2011 Tuvalu went through one of its driest spells ever, with very little rainfall over a 6-month period, bringing the country into a national state of emergency. While the average person is estimated to consume 100 litres of water per day, the water ration was reduced to two buckets per day per household at the height of the drought. Many trees withered and crops died as the rainfall dwindled and soils became saltier.
This drought episode in 2011 may be just a glimpse of what Tuvalu may see more of in the future as climate change disrupts the earth’s intricate climate system.
With UNDP support, the Government of Tuvalu launched a climate change adaptation project, financed by the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF) and AusAID. Water resource management was selected as a priority area for Tuvalu, along with food security.
Water storage capacity was expanded on four of the islands, providing two to three days’ worth of water for the residents to prepare for longer droughts.
To improve food security as saline groundwater makes growing crops more difficult, varieties that are more salt- or drought-tolerant have been introduced and home gardens have been promoted.
Adapting to new changes is always difficult and takes time. These efforts in the project have been full of trials and errors, but they also provided important learning opportunities for the islanders.
The Tuvaluan ancestors began their journey long ago seeking a better place to live. Now a new journey has begun for modern-day Tuvaluans seeking ways to adapt their ancestors’ land to climate change.