Shoring up Tuvalu's Climate Resilience


The community of Nui island, Tuvalu, waves goodbye to the Prime Minister and his delegation visiting on a 3-day mission following Cyclone Pam. When the Category 5 cyclone struck in March 2015, the storm surges destroyed homes, crops and livelihoods, displacing 45 percent of the nation’s people. Photo: Silke von Brockhausen/UNDP

Today a large-scale resilience project launched in the Pacific nation of Tuvalu. It marks the start of an ambitious project that intends to build about 2.2km of coastal defense along the country’s most vulnerable coastlines – a very significant set of works where the average elevation is less than two meters above sea levels . 

The defense measures of the ‘Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project’ (which will range from piling up large boulders or sandbags along the waterline, to the construction of robust concrete slopes, to establishing artificial beaches) will provide crucial protection from erosion and inundation, both of which are expected to be amplified as the impacts of climate change become more pronounced. 

The size of the project – US$36 million –  is very substantial in a country whose GDP is $34 million. Its importance was reflected at the launch event I attended today in the capital, the island atoll of Funafuti, where the meeting hall was filled with the Prime Minister, senior politicians, government staff and local community members, the air filled with anticipation and excitement.

Tuvaluan people have long waited for this moment. Even though Tuvalu's vulnerability to sea-level rise has been widely recognized on the global stage, proper protection has been almost non-existent. This UNDP-supported project is one of the first, large-scale initiatives that promises to deliver meaningful protection.

Having been involved in the development of this project from the start, working closely with the Government to submit the proposal to the Green Climate Fund, I share in the excitement. Yet my feeling is somewhat tempered… As much as there is a cause for celebration, one also needs to recognize that Tuvalu's battle with climate change is far from over.

The length of coastlines that will be equipped with defenses through this project is only about 12 percent of the country’s vulnerable coastlines (or 2.7 percent of the total coastlines). Meanwhile, there is hardly sufficient donor resources, nor appetite, to fortify this small nation with sandbags and concrete. As sea-levels rise and storms intensify, some question the effectiveness (and, certainly cost-effectiveness) of engineered solutions, like those used in this project. Certainly I understand some of these technical concerns.

Ultimately, though, I believe this project is critically important and should be lauded. Here are three key reasons why:

First, this project will provide coastal protection which, while not removing the threat entirely, at least the significantly delays the consideration of a question that is currently unthinkable for many Tuvaluans: migration.

Second, this project is empowering.  Until now, due to a shortage of local technical expertise, Tuvalu has had to rely on external support to carry out necessary assessments (for example, monitoring and evaluating coastal changes and whether they are due to natural processes or due to human activities and sea-level rise). This project invests in building the knowledge and skills of young Tuvaluans in the area of climate adaptation, long-term. While “capacity building” may not sound glamorous, it’s transformational because Tuvaluans will now be able to more independently identify and implement the solutions they want to see. This in turn gives them a sense of self-fulfillment from the ability to make decisions about their own future.   

Third, during the implementation of this project, a new approach to coastal protection that utilizes ecosystem functions (such as coral reefs, beaches and beach forests) will be introduced at a small-scale. This is a new concept in Tuvalu and one which can provide more affordable, and more flexible, protection options to the country in the long-run. 

Today the excitement from the launch still lingers in the air. Day One of project implementation starts tomorrow. Many small island nations will be anxiously following the performance of this project, as it will have an important bearing on the choices they make their fight with climate change. Tuvalu is now a beacon in the vast South Pacific Ocean. 

* The project is financed by the Green Climate Fund. For more information, click here. Follow the project on Twitter #TCAPGCF

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