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Tuvalu's Sinking Feeling

A Pacific island nation fears vanishing beneath the waves. It is weighing a suit against the U.S. over emissions blamed for global warming.


VAIAKU, Tuvalu — This isolated country is not much more than a few specks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Its population wouldn't fill a fifth of Dodger Stadium. Its highest point is 16 feet above sea level.

But Tuvalu is at the center of international debate over climate change. Many of Tuvalu's people worry that rising sea levels caused by global warming will wash away their country.

They talk of suing the U.S. government or big American corporations for polluting the atmosphere and causing the planet's temperature to rise. They condemn President Bush for backing out of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

"We don't have hills or mountains. All we have is coconut trees," elder statesman Koloa Talake said. "If the industrial countries don't consider our crisis, our only alternative is to climb up in the coconut trees when the tide rises."

By all appearances, Tuvalu is a Polynesian paradise. With seven coral atolls and two coral islands, the country is spread across 350 miles of the South Pacific north of New Zealand. Palm trees grow along white sand beaches that fringe the turquoise waters of lagoons.

It remains to be seen whether science will support Tuvalu's predictions of impending doom, but no one doubts that the country faces a precarious existence.

At the ripe age of 65 million years, its atolls are nearing the end of their geologic life span. Not only do islanders face the danger of the sea rising, they also face the inevitable problem of the land sinking.

Each atoll was formed when a volcanic island sank beneath the sea, leaving a ring of coral islands around a lagoon.

An outer reef protects the land from the pounding of the sea. The coral can grow upward and keep pace with a gradual increase in sea level, but if the ocean rises too quickly, the natural barrier could be lost.

"If the reef is destroyed, it's goodbye, Tuvalu," said Wolfgang Scherer, director of Australia's National Tidal Facility.

The atolls are especially vulnerable to tropical storms that can change the landscape overnight. In 1997, a cyclone swept the topsoil and every tree and bush off the islet of Tepuka Savilivili in Tuvalu's main atoll, Funafuti.

This former British colony has just 10 square miles of land and a population of 10,400, making it, next to Vatican City, the world's least populous country.

The Tuvaluans are Polynesians whose ancestors arrived by canoe possibly more than 2,000 years ago. Today they fish, raise pigs and grow taro, cassava, bananas and coconuts on small plots of land.

Most of the jobs are in government. Some men leave Tuvalu to find work as seamen on cargo ships or as unskilled laborers in New Zealand.

Men and women commonly wear flowers in their hair. Many houses have thatched roofs and walls made of woven mats. When the country's 12-member Parliament is not meeting in the open-sided Maneapa meeting hall, boys play soccer there.

Tuvalu is connected to the outside world only by flights to Fiji twice a week and by occasional cargo ships that bring supplies. Visitors are few. The country has one hotel, which has no hot water.

On Funafuti, television is normally broadcast one evening a week for two hours, although now it is off the air entirely because of an equipment breakdown. A few people, mostly government officials, have computers and can connect to the Internet. There are few cars, and most people get around on foot or by motorbike.

Tuvalu had little contact with the outside world until Spanish explorers arrived in 1781. In the 1800s, slave traders stole hundreds of people from the islands to work the guano mines of Peru. Missionaries converted the rest of the population to Christianity.

Today, many Tuvaluans have a literal faith in the Bible and don't believe any harm will come from global warming.

Shopkeeper Lutelu Kofe, 46, is typical. He is more concerned about harm to the community from rising alcohol levels than rising water levels.

"I read the Bible, and God said to Noah, 'No more floods,' " Kofe said. "So I'm not worried. When I see the sea, it's the same as before."

But the Tuvaluan government is marshaling its arguments in the hope of winning foreign help in finding a new home if the need arises.

Tuvalu has hired an attorney in Washington and is considering whether its best strategy is to sue the U.S. government or American oil companies, coal mining firms and auto makers. But officials acknowledge that pinning the blame for global warming on individual companies would be a long shot.

At one point, Tuvalu asked Australia to agree to accept its entire population in the event the islands are flooded, but Australia refused. New Zealand has agreed to accept 75 Tuvaluans a year, but many islanders can't afford to make the move.

Nine years ago, scientists from Australia's National Tidal Facility installed high-tech gauges in Tuvalu and 10 other Pacific nations to measure changes in sea level.

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