Wednesday, January 23, 2008

BBC - Paradise in Peril - King Tide Diary

I have been cutting and pasting a lot lately. I heard this on BBC World Service last night and I thought it was fascinating. Entire countries like Tuvalu are destined to disappear thanks to Global Warming. Its happening and no one will do anything till the water is lapping at their steps. Then we will wonder why we didn't see the warning signs......

Paradise in peril - King Tide diary

The King Tide hits the islands of Tuvalu

BBC science correspondent David Shukman travels to the Pacific island state of Tuvalu, where the highest point on land is just five metres (16 ft). This puts the collection of atolls that make up the country at high risk of flooding - particularly if sea levels continue to rise as expected.


Night after night, I watch the Moon getting fuller. And as it rises over the lagoon, I picture it tugging at the waters, lifting them inch by inch towards a dreaded King Tide.

I've read a lot about how Tuvalu is scarcely above sea level and it's all true. We drive up and down the island stunned at how high the waves get, how low the land is.

Like many in the Pacific, Tuvaluans are rugby mad
This is a country without any hills - a collection of coral pancakes. The only high ground is the odd very slight bump. We've yet to detect a feature marked on the map as Mount Funafuti.

There's a curious paradox. The fate of the islands could hardly look more precarious. Waves crash over the main road and seawater bubbles up through the coral to poison the soil.

Yet life goes on. We watch a rugby contest. The players are from Tuvalu's different islands and, though the sea may yet engulf them all and the floodwaters lie beside the pitch, they show no restraint at all in the tackling.

Parents perch their youngsters on motorbikes and steer through the puddles. A woman lugs a freshly caught tuna home from a roadside stall. A meeting hall, the venue for a funeral, is surrounded by floodwater, forcing the priest to gingerly pick his way in open sandals through murky pools.

I chat to Teimana Avanitele whose garden is flooded - which means that none of her vegetables will grow. She's worried about the rising tides but remains, like so many here, a cheerful soul. At least her coconuts survive and she keeps a fire burning under a pot of palm syrup, promising us a bottle of "toddy" when it's ready.

She's curious about us, and why we've come from half-way around the world. People are also fascinated by how we see them.

A group of children is glued to a video we've brought of a documentary by David Attenborough which includes some scenes from Tuvalu.

And when our first news report is aired on BBC World, a small crowd in the hotel lobby erupts with pleasure when friends and relatives are spotted.

Never mind that the report contains dire scientific warnings about their future. I mention this to the presenter of Radio Tuvalu and she smiles, as if to say that's simply the Tuvaluan way.

Tonight, the wind is hammering the windows. We wonder if tomorrow's waves will be even larger.


We're a small band of people on the bumpy, two-hour, twice-weekly flight over the turbulent waters from Fiji to the coral atolls of Tuvalu.

There's a family dressed in black, returning for the funeral of a son.

A father clutches his young boy, recovering from medical treatment, to his arm. Tuvalu has a hospital but some operations can only be done in Fiji.

Coral link to floods
A senior official, with distinguished grey hair and a garish flowery shirt, has been studying civil service management - Tuvalu may only have 11,000 citizens but it has the full apparatus of government.

A woman teacher worries that she will be late for the start of term at a boarding school on one of Tuvalu's outer islands - our plane, already 24 hours late, may not land in time to catch the weekly boat.

A former sailor is heading home after a short break - the remittances from Tuvaluans working the world's cargo ships are a major source of national income.

Below us is nothing but ocean - until the engines of our sturdy old propeller plane start to slow.

Then, suddenly, improbably, we spot the few delicate, slender scraps of land that make up Tuvalu.

Barely wider than the runway, I see a narrow stripe of green and white, a huddle of roofs amid the palms.

Beside it, amid the reefs and shallows, are colours so vivid they look artificial. There are patches of incandescent cobalt and deep blue and lurid green.

When the aircraft door opens, the heat and humidity hit like a steam train. We scurry across the runway to the shade of the tiny airport building.

I notice a woman customs officer looking at me intently. Naturally, I wonder if I've done something wrong. But she roars with laughter.

"Did I see you on TV?" she asks. "In the ice? All dressed up for the cold?"

She watches the BBC on satellite and saw our journey through the unimaginably chillier climate of the Northwest Passage in the Arctic last year. My presence in the tropics is obviously hilarious.

Pasty-faced from a European winter, bathed in sweat in the stifling temperatures, I'm obviously out of place in a land that never sees snow.

With another giggle, she stamps my form and waves me through, chuckling. Welcome to Tuvalu.


Somewhere in the infinite black of the Pacific night, I cross the International Date Line and lose not only the entire 24 hours of Wednesday but also my luggage and some, if not all, of my marbles.

Few quicker roads to insanity have been devised than combining sleep deprivation with a 12-hour time difference and then having to wait on hold for various airline and airport offices to tell me my suitcase never existed.

I sit in the drenching torpor of Fiji wishing I could fast forward to my eventual destination, the tiny island nation of Tuvalu, preferably accompanied by a few of my belongings.

The particular problem is that because Tuvalu barely pokes above an ocean whose level is rising, I had wanted to be prepared with a Scoop-like array of possessions - everything from rubber boots for the flooding, sandals for the heat and a snorkel in case things get really bad. The so-called King Tide - the year's highest - is due soon.

Instead, I find my brain developing its own International Incomprehension Line as I struggle to understand how a missing bag on a flight booked with Air New Zealand seems to also involve Pacific Air, United Airlines, Qantas, and the luggage black hole of Los Angeles airport.

So I resign myself to having to find replacements which means enduring a personal double horror - shopping in intense heat.

The streets of the Fijian capital Suva, alternately soaked and steaming, are the scene for this quest. I stumble from one bemused Indian trader to another trying to avoid shirts that would look appropriate on the set of Borat or might be useful in livening up a damp barbecue in south London.

Eventually, producer Mark Georgiou and cameraman Tony Fallshaw agree I'm ready for the final leg of this Pacific journey. And then I get a message. My suitcase has been found and will be with me tonight. It's like finding a lost child, pure joy.

But I hardly sleep. My mobile keeps ringing. On the one occasion I manage to find it in time, I answer to a surreal cold call from an estate agent. But better that than sleeping too much - my dreams, fuelled by too many airline meals, are uncomfortably repetitive on the twin themes of waiting on hold and watching the vast Pacific Ocean rising in the dark.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2008/01/23 16:42:57 GMT


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I am interested in CNG vehicles because they are good for the environment and aren't powered by dead Marines. I still have a little hope for the world. Read the musings and enjoy.

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