Written with Florent Baarsch
When the tsunami warning reached Tuvalu, the only thing to do, was to sit down and wait.
On Tuvalu, a low-lying island state in the middle of the Pacific, were the highest point is 4,5 meter above sea-level, there is not much you can do to protect yourself in the case of big waves.
The Government building is the highest and most secure building, and also the crisis centre of the capital. This is the place to go to when natural disasters, like tsunamis, are threatening the island. But honestly, what does it really help to be 12 meter above the sea, in a three-story brick house, if a big wave should come our way?
Some of the tsunami-waves in 2004 were up to 30 meters high; the wave that hit Japan measured 10 meters. On the small 1,4 square kilometres were the 5000 inhabitants of the capital lives, there are actually no place to hide.
On low-lying island states as Tuvalu, the geographical conditions, the isolated location and poorly developed infrastructure and evacuation systems, make the islanders incredible vulnerable.
The closest outside-help is 1000 km away (Fiji) and the islanders are spread out on nine different islands and atolls. Some live almost all by themselves on the tiny islands of the atolls. The sole way of transporting people from one island to the other is the two ferries that go between the islands. This makes a rescue operation really difficult, if not impossible.
The outer islands haven’t gotten much solid infrastructure, as we do on Fogafale (the main islet of the atoll Funafuti – the capital). For those who live outside Fogafale (half of the Tuvaluan population), the church is the most solid building. The only communication with the centre goes through satellite telephones (of they work), sometimes a shaky mobile network and the radio. The rescue team did not reach the three families that live on one of the other islets of the capital until midnight, even though this islet is just a one-hour boat-ride across the lagoon. What then about the most northerly island located 30 hours away with the ferry?
Tuvaluans live off and with the sea. The children plays alone in the waves from they are a fist-size big. The men use every opportunity to go out fishing. Tuvalus biggest export is seafarers and their land is spread out on nine islands in the middle of the Pacific. Consequently, the Tuvaluans know the strength of the sea and respect it.
You could think that these islanders are used to catastrophic warnings, but the Tuvaluans we talked to were more scared than we expected, much more scared than we were. Many took their whole family and buckets of food and drinks to the Government house. There they spread the pandanus mat (which is what most people here use to sleep on) and prepared themselves for a night in the corridors. Others said a last fare well with friends and family and waited for the wave at home.
Tsunamies and earthquakes are among the things that we human can’t control. In contrast, storms and hurricanes are – and these kinds of natural disasters are already rising, in both strength and frequency.
The islanders here still bear the hurricane Bebe (1972) clearly in mind. Bebe washed away most of the buildings on Funafuti, the Government house was destroyed beyond repair, almost all of the 125 houses were damaged and 700 people were left homeless.
The four meter tall and 19 km long stonewall that the hurricane washed on shore is still standing. In 1972 below 871 people lived on Funafuti. What kind of damage can a hurricane like Bebe do to the heavily urbanized capital today?
When ”Nye Meninger” launched this weekend’s debate, some commented that they didn’t think it was worthwhile saving more space for doom-day-prophecies. We agree. It is much more rational to use the space to focus on how we can reduce the damage of future disasters and how we can prevent those disasters that we actually can prevent.
Even though earth quakes and tsunamies don’t have the same origin as storms and hurricanes, the consequences on small low-lying island states will be more and more serious. Since we will get more and more storms, whose we, through our actions and emissions, are controlling the strength and the number of, it is time to understand two things:
(1) We, the inhabitants of rich and industrialized countries, have to help Tuvaluans, the other islanders and vulnerable people handling the waves, no matter what caused them (earth quakes or hurricanes). (2) We also have to do our part in reducing the risk for future natural disasters by mitigating our contribution to climate change.
First published on Dagsavisens debate pages: Nye Meninger 14.03.2011.