An atoll state in peril

John Connell discusses the problem of environmental change, economic development and emigration in Tuvalu.

The author is head of the School of Geosciences and Professor of Geography at the University of Sydney in Australia.

In the past decade, concern has increased over the possible impact of the accelerated greenhouse effect on sea-level rise and the implications of that sea-level rise for countries with substantial areas of land at or close to sea level.

Many island states fall into this category, none more so than those where coral atolls predominate since atolls rarely rise even three metres above sea level. For most coastal dwellers, one response to rising sea levels is moving inland to higher ground. For residents on atolls, such a choice is not possible as high land does not exist.

All island states face new environmental problems because many people, all urban centres, and much infrastructure related to tourism, trade and economic development are concentrated on the coast. The five world states composed solely of atolls, though, are most at risk. These are Tuvalu, Tokelau, Kiribati, the Maldives and the Marshall Islands. It is in these atoll states that the challenges posed by global warming are most severe and where the necessity to respond to the threat of the greenhouse effect is most apparent.

Small island states also face difficult economic circumstances. They are remote, with economies that are dependent on primary commodity production and increasingly on aid, although the potential “aid fatigue” of metropolitan nations coupled with increasing expectations over standards of living pose new challenges for future socio-economic development.

Growing consensus on the accelerated greenhouse effect indicates that potential increases in both sea levels and tropical storms will pose problems for atoll states. One of the atoll states most affected will be Tuvalu. Land areas and water supplies may be threatened by coastal erosion, depleting agricultural and fisheries potential. Tuvalu’s economy is limited and partly reliant on aid and remittances whose sustainability is uncertain.

More than a third of the population of Tuvalu now lives in overcrowded conditions in the urban centre of Funafuti. Population growth has accelerated since independence in 1978, despite attempts to implement a population policy, while opportunities for temporary or permanent emigration have not increased.

If environmental changes exacerbate domestic development strategies, Tuvaluans are more likely to become “environmental refugees,” creating new human-rights issues.

Physical and socio-economic context

Tuvalu is an archipelago consisting of three small reef islands and six coral atolls located on the western margin of Polynesia some one thousand kilometres north of Fiji. A total land area of only 24.4 square kilometres is spread over 750,000 square kilometres of the central Pacific. The largest island, Vaitupu, has just 4.9 square kilometres. The highest point in the country is no more than five metres above sea level and most areas are below that. It is obvious that Tuvalu is highly vulnerable to natural hazards. Over a third of the population of ten thousand is concentrated on the main island of Funafuti which has an area of just 2.4 square kilometres.

Tuvalu suffers from most of the conventional disadvantages of small island states. These disadvantages are accentuated by its very small size, its extreme isolation and fragmentation, and its thin and porous coral soils lacking in nutrients which make agriculture and most other forms of development exceptionally difficult.

Population growth has been rapid in the post-war years and has not been relieved by the safety valve of out-migration as has occurred in most other parts of Polynesia, especially in New Zealand dependencies. Agricultural and fisheries production has not grown as rapidly as the population and a transition to imported food, especially rice, has followed changing tastes, preferences and convenience. This transition has been so substantial that in Tuvalu, as in other atoll states, imported foods and drinks now constitute about a third of all imports by value, a substantial drain on domestic resources.

The combination of high post-war rates of population increase, a growing desire for consumer goods, the location of the hospital in the single urban centre and the concentration of formal-sector employment there has resulted in urban migration from the islands on the periphery. Rapid urbanization even in this very small state has posed a range of social problems, all of which are complicated by the threat of climatic change.

Future impacts

Scientific studies increasingly indicate that one of the major impacts of climate change will be a rise in sea levels with some low-lying islands becoming inundated and coasts even more eroded. Erosion is not unusual and was evident in Nanumea and Nukufetau even before recent concerns over accelerated sea-level rise.

A gradual rise of mean sea level will progressively lift the zone of flooding and increase the impact of storm waves therefore eroding areas hitherto considered safe. Human responses will vary depending on the value of the coastal land under attack and the resources available to provide protective measures. In states where resources are very limited and small populations thinly spread, the provision of expensive engineering works will not be a commonly available option.

Coastal erosion will increase with the rise of sea levels, perhaps beyond the upward growth of corals. This erosion will probably be accentuated by the greater frequency of storms. Increased temperatures will decrease human comfort in the tropics and may worsen human health.

The intertropical convergence zone is likely to shift northwards, changing the distribution of zones of upwelling. This will, in turn, alter the distribution of fish stocks and subsequently affect fisheries. Such major climatic changes as the frequency and severity of cyclones and tropical storms may also increase as temperatures rise.

Island ecology, in terms of the capacity to support human habitation, is closely tied to the existence of a permanent groundwater system. Islands above a certain size, about 1.5 hectares, contain a permanent lens of fresh water surrounded by salt water. The volume of the lens is roughly proportional to the surface area of the atoll. A decline, therefore, in the area of an atoll would have a disproportionate impact on the volume of the lens. During droughts, water-table levels fall and the groundwater may become brackish. Environmental stress is manifested by trees losing leaves, not fruiting and even dying. Yet the most severe threat to permanent water supplies is not from climatic factors directly, but rather from marine processes that cause coastal erosion and increase the frequency of storm overwash.

Increased groundwater salinity will reduce its potability, which for most atolls is currently of considerable significance. It will also reduce the productivity of agriculture, since no plant species will gain from increased salinity. In drought conditions access to groundwater on atolls is crucial although on some atolls with reasonably high rainfall the construction of better cisterns may enable the use of groundwater to be minimized or even ended.

If increased salinity is combined with any long-term decline in rainfall, as is possible in some areas, the results will be even more serious since the cost of water purification and desalination is extremely high. If groundwater becomes no longer potable, human habitation will be effectively impossible.

Fresh water is most scarce after cyclones or tidal waves have swept over an atoll, salting soils and wells, a situation likely to increase under greenhouse conditions.

Erosion reduces land area and, where there is minimal elevation, such losses may become severe and increase the swampiness and salinity of areas that remain above sea level. Areas immediately at risk will be those that have previously been reclaimed from the sea, including parts of Funafuti now used for agriculture and roads.

Land losses will lead to a decline in agricultural production, increased competition for scarce land and a related decline in handicraft materials, such as wood and pandanus, and firewood which is already in extremely short supply in the urban area. Such changes will further threaten the already limited subsistence base and introduce new environmental problems.

Erosion of fringing reefs may disturb and reduce the distinctiveness of lagoon ecology as lagoons increasingly become indistinguishable in content from the surrounding ocean. Mangrove habitats may also be damaged. This damage would reduce the artisanal fishing potential of many areas, especially where lagoons currently provide fisheries diversity.

The greenhouse effect is likely, therefore, to lead to reduced agricultural production, a possible decline in fisheries production and a loss of vital water, timber and firewood resources, thus reducing the potential of the few areas in which island states currently demonstrate a degree of self-reliance. These effects will occur alongside continued population growth. An increase in population pressure on diminishing resources will further encourage rural-urban migration from the outer islands in search of wages and salaries, rather than the increasingly unpredictable agricultural and fisheries income.

Response options

Much of what is currently known about the impact of the greenhouse effect is derived from conjecture and speculation, since the order of magnitude of future physical events cannot be determined and there is no real precedent for what is likely to follow. Though the postglacial marine transgression that ended around six thousand years ago must have had a similar effect, it occurred in a vastly different social and economic context, leaving few records of its human impact – and none in then uninhabited Polynesia.

With complex and interrelated causes and with consequences involving changing natural processes and a variety of human adaptations to those changes, the greenhouse effect is effectively an uncontrolled experiment on a global scale. Whatever the outcome, it is apparent that the greenhouse effect offers nothing positive to tropical island states. In atoll states like Tuvalu where all the land is low-lying, problems will be more apparent and quicker to occur.

Island states have consequently sought to discourage greenhouse gas production, most of which occurs in the industrialized North, individually and through the Alliance of Small Island States in both international and regional forums. Island states themselves have done little or nothing to cause changes in atmospheric composition and global climate change, nor can they directly influence mitigation.

Even if an international agreement were reached to stabilize global greenhouse-gas production levels there would still be considerable future impact from present greenhouse gas levels. Adaptation to climate change is essential.

Opportunities for adaptation, though, and for socio-economic development are naturally constrained by limited land areas and the simplicity of atoll environments, where natural ecosystems may easily be disrupted. Moreover, uncertainty over the outcome of the greenhouse effect has restricted the ability and willingness, nationally and internationally, to respond to potential problems through policy formation. Indeed, response is least likely in small island states where information is inadequate, planning offices are small and fully stretched to cope with standard recurrent activities and options are few.

Environmental planning remains in its infancy, and the five-year plans that presently exist are usually the extreme limit of long-term planning. Many conventional measures to reduce vulnerability, such as transferring populations, infrastructure, and economic activities to higher land, are impossible in atoll situations. Other conventional measures, such as the construction of dykes, sea walls and pumping stations are extremely expensive. This is especially so in developing states, where small populations are spread over a large number of islands. Even defending the urban area would be a complex and costly operation, and would itself be a pointless exercise. Financing for such projects is absent in all small states, and no donor would contemplate aid on the appropriate scale.

Island states can, however, develop programmes to improve environmental conservation and management. Opportunities exist in the following:

  • the increased use of solar energy, rather than expensive, imported greenhouse gas from fossil fuels or local firewood;
  • afforestation, in order both to guard against erosion and storm damage, and to produce new and old species of social and economic value; and,
  • improved water supplies, especially the construction of rainwater catchments to improve water quality and reduce dependence on underground lenses.

Because of increased pressure on resources, especially coastal resources, stemming from rising population and solid-waste disposal problems, the necessity for improved coastal-zone management is paramount.

Although none of these policies will significantly reduce the impact of the greenhouse effect, and atoll states cannot develop such policies themselves, still, they would stimulate wise resource use, improve the physical quality of life and lead to more sustainable development.

Prospects for development

The modern era has increasingly demonstrated the tyrannies of distance that have restricted contemporary development in small island states. Atolls are tiny, resource-poor, often distant from each other, and remote from substantial land masses.

Atoll states consequently face a host of development problems, often in a more accentuated form than in other island micro-states. Problems include limited skills, a small domestic market size, the high cost of imports and exports, the restricted diversity of exports and substantial administrative costs. These disadvantages have usually led to large trade deficits, balance of payments problems, and considerable dependence on foreign aid and technical assistance. Only in the Maldives has there been any industrialization or tourism. In the South Pacific, especially in Tuvalu, both types of development are absent.

Atoll states have moved rapidly into situations of extreme dependence on the outside world, primarily for aid, concessional trade, and migration opportunities. The absence of international migration opportunities comparable to those in many other island micro-states, in turn, has necessitated domestic responses to the problems of achieving economic development. With few human or natural resources though, the problems have been increasingly difficult to address.

Concessional trade schemes are of diminished importance in an era of increasingly free world trade, and aid from most donor nations is currently declining. In both spheres greater self-reliance and increased privatization are being thrust upon less-developed states by reluctant donors and international organizations.

Where island states, like Tuvalu, are disadvantaged in their geographical location and physical characteristics and also have little trade and strategic location to provide bargaining status, these trends are of concern. There are few prospects for significant economic growth in Tuvalu and none that are likely to be possible without some degree of external support.


Because of limited social and economic development, migration has become a way of life. The government of Tuvalu has encouraged international migration and intermittently sought improved temporary and permanent migration opportunities in metropolitan states. Elsewhere in the Pacific, migration has been a common response to difficult economic circumstances, and, where political ties permit migration, flows have been substantial and the populations of some dependent territories have declined.

Although this migration does constitute a brain and skill drain, the investment in human capital that it constitutes has been an essential element in household survival strategies in the absence of attractive domestic investment opportunities. It has been observed that Polynesian migrants, for example, continue to remit at high levels for periods of more than twenty-five years.

The provision of migration opportunities results in significant income flows to small island states, constituting a valid form of aid where conventional forms of aid have been of minimal value in stimulating economic development. However, most metropolitan states have increasingly restricted migration opportunities, while focusing on skill requirements that are rarely evident in the atoll states.

Environmental change is likely to exacerbate domestic development problems in Tuvalu, and in other atoll states, and increase the demand for emigration. In the coral atolls that constitute the Carteret Islands (Papua New Guinea), where there has been a regional sea-level rise, resettlement has transferred people onto the large island of Bougainville.

In other world regions, environmental problems, whether natural (including drought and volcanic eruption) or anthropogenic, have stimulated emigration. A worsened environment in Tuvalu is likely to add to existing pressures for new emigration opportunities. More adequate coastal-zone management, sustainable development, and a slowing of population growth will delay but not avert this situation.

Yet the resettlement of the national population would pose ethical issues. In Tuvalu it has been said that, “there is nowhere else that can substitute for our God-given homeland of Tuvalu. The option of relocation as mooted by some countries therefore is utterly insensitive and irresponsible... Ignoring our pleas will amount to nothing less than denial of our rights to exist as part of the global society and of the human race.”

Environmental refugees

In the early months of the 21st century, the people of Tuvalu have had to confront the very real possibility of entirely losing their beloved islands. Coastal erosion together with rising salinity and sea levels are worsening, so much so, that the Tuvaluan Government has publicly announced that its people may very soon have to abandon their homeland.

In the Australian newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald in July 2001, it was reported that the Tuvaluan Government had approached New Zealand and Australia about the resettlement of its people.

Tuvalu’s Acting Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Pusinelli Lafai, said that the pleas to New Zealand had been well-received but that Australia had been dismissive. A Tuvaluan delegation to Canberra to discuss the problem found that the “statement was hardly out of their mouths before the Australian delegation shut it up... Australia is absolutely against opening up any dialogue.”

At the same time, Paani Laupepa, the acting assistant secretary at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, echoed national concern saying that “the island is full of holes and seawater is coming through these, flooding areas that weren’t normally flooded ten or 15 years ago.”

In the 1980s, when population densities were much lower than they are now, labour migration was perceived to be the only alternative to starvation. A century later there is the very real possibility that Tuvalu’s population will become environmental refugees, not just some time this century, but within decades.

Metropolitan states on the fringes of the South Pacific will have to respond to not only the severe physical impacts, but eventually to one of the most profound impacts of the accelerated greenhouse effect – the challenge of human rights.

Further information
John Connell, School of Geosciences, Division of Geography, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia. Fax: +61-2-93510184. Email:

On the Web
On the Web: Small Island States lists relevant links.

This article is based on a more detailed paper which appeared in the journal Pacific Studies in March 1999 (Vol. 22, No. 1).