Climate Refugees

Spotlight: Tuvalu

The climate crisis is the single greatest threat facing Tuvalu.10 Located in the southwest Pacific Ocean, Tuvalu is one of the world’s smallest and most isolated island nations, consisting of nine inhabited atolls and reef islands. Multiple factors influence the existential threat posed by the climate crisis in Tuvalu such as sea-level rise, recurrent severe tropical cyclones, and increasing rainfall. Although many Tuvaluans are forced to migrate, none are afforded international protections or rights under the 1951 Refugee Convention, as is exemplified in a 2014 New Zealand case, where a Tuvalu family fought to obtain refugee status based on climate crisis impacts but was denied.11

Tuvalu’s mean elevation is 2 meters above sea level, leaving the island nation especially vulnerable to the projected sea-level increase of 5 to 15 centimeters by 2030 and 20 to 60 centimeters by 2090.12 Like other Pacific island nations, this sea-level rise threatens to wipe Tuvalu off the map entirely,13 but not before mass flooding, coastal erosion, inundations, and groundwater salinization.14 Moreover, as a result of its geographical location, Tuvalu is highly exposed to tropical cyclones that, according to global climate models, will become more recurrent and severe in the future.15 The rise in frequent and intense rainfall will have catastrophic effects on the island’s resources, food, land, and people.16 These climate crisis factors have implications for Tuvalu’s water and food security, and will increase sustained internal and external displacement, pushing people to leave their homes and land as climate refugees.

For Tuvalu, availability of water resources is a constant challenge that is exacerbated by the climate crisis.17 With no surface water, Tuvalu depends completely on rainwater18 and is thus acutely vulnerable to shifts in rainfall patterns, sea-level rise, and other extreme weather events.19 In October 2011, Tuvalu experienced one of its worst droughts, which turned into a declared state of emergency in which household water consumption was limited to 20 liters a day.20 Moreover, with a small economy relying primarily on fishing and semi-subsistence farming, Tuvalu’s food security is highly vulnerable to changes in climate.21 Increasing sea-surface temperature and ocean acidification are already negatively affecting reef fisheries on the island,22 and rising sea levels in combination with saltwater intrusion prevent farmers from cultivating staple crops such as pulaka.23

Because of these and other factors, the climate crisis has, and will continue, to be a driver of displacement within and from the island nation. For example, after tropical cyclone Pam hit Tuvalu in March 2015, storm waves destroyed homes, crops, and livelihoods, and internally displaced an estimated 5,400 people—45 percent of the total population.24 Yet, as the climate crisis and its effects become more pronounced,25 only a quarter of households will have the financial means to relocate.26 Even if mass relocation were safe and feasible, Tuvaluan officials have articulated just how damaging the process would be, stating that “to get a property and relocate would be to lose our sovereign right and our identity.…You cannot make another Tuvalu.”27 With personal and national identity tied to the land, Tuvaluans, when forced to leave the island due to the climate crisis, face an invaluable loss of knowledge around land management, and a loss of tradition and culture among the island’s youth.28 It is estimated that migration within Tuvalu will increase by 70 percent, and international migration will double by 2055.29

The Tuvaluan government has enacted several programs and initiatives in response to the climate crisis. Most recently, they created Te Kakeega III: National Strategy for Sustainable Development 2016–2020 (TK III). The strategic agenda aims to reclaim the coastline from erosion, cyclones, and storm surges; establish sea defenses on all islands; 30 and grow the Tuvalu Survival Fund.31 Since releasing TK III, Tuvalu has also signed and ratified the 2015 Paris Agreement. Despite these attempts by the Tuvaluan government, these efforts cannot succeed in preventing the effects of the climate crisis on their island without concerted efforts by the international community. 

  • 10. Jane McAdam, “Refusing Refuge in the Pacific: (De) constructing Climate-Induced Displacement in International Law,” in E. Piguet, A. Pécoud and P. de Guchteneire (eds.), Migration and Climate Change (UNESCO, Paris, 2011), https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/4d95a1532.pdf.
  • 11. AC (Tuvalu), (2014) NZIPT 800517-520, (June 4, 2014), https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/585151694.pdf.
  • 12. Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Climate Variability, Extremes and Change in the Western Tropical Pacific: New Science and Updated Country Reports (Melbourne, Australia: Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, November 2016), https:// www.pacificclimatechangescience.org/wp-content/ uploads/2014/07/PACCSAP_CountryReports2014_ WEB_140710.pdf.
  • 13. Justin Worland, “The Leaders of These Sinking Countries Are Fighting to Stop Climate Change,” Time, (June 13, 2019), https://time.com/longform/sinking-islands-climate-change/.
  • 14. Government of Tuvalu, Tuvalu’s National Adaptation Programme of Action Under the Auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (2007), http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/napa/tuv01.pdf.
  • 15. Nikolas Scherer and Dennis Tänzler, The Vulnerable Twenty—From Climate Risks to Adaptation, (Berlin, Germany: adelphi, October 1, 2018), https://www. climate-diplomacy.org/publications/vulnerable-twenty-–-climate-risks-adaptation.
  • 16. Andrea Milan, Robert Oakes, and Jillian Cambell, Tuvalu: Climate Change and Migration—Relationships Between Household Vulnerability, Human Mobility and Climate Change (Bonn: United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security 2016), http:// collections.unu.edu/eserv/UNU:5856/Online_No_18_ Tuvalu_Report_161207_.pdf.
  • 17. During the drought, households dealt with water shortages that resulted in families not having enough water for basic needs, to feed livestock, or to tend to their crops. With the death of food-bearing trees and other crops, families faced long-term food security issues because the population relies on subsistence crops for food. Sandra McCubbin, Barry Smit, and Tristan Pearce, “Where Does Climate Fit? Vulnerability to Climate Change in the Context of Multiple Stressors in Funafuti, Tuvalu.” Global Environmental Change 30 (January 2015): 43–55, accessed May 28, 2019, https:// doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.10.007
  • 18. “PACC Tuvalu, UNDP Climate Change Adaptation,” Endnotes Climate Refugees: The Climate Crisis and Rights Denied 68 UN Development Programme, accessed May 29, 2019, https://www.adaptation-undp.org/projects/bf-pacc-tuvalu.
  • 19. UN Development Programme, “PACC Tuvalu.”
  • 20. “Securing Tuvalu’s Water Supply,” reliefweb, accessed May 28, 2019, https://reliefweb.int/report/tuvalu/securing-tuvalu%E2%80%99s-water-supply.
  • 21. According to a 2017 study, 10 percent of households in Tuvalu experienced a shortage of food, and 52 percent ate less desirable imported foods, which tended to be nutrient poor because they could not access preferred local foods. Sandra G. McCubbin, Tristan Pearce, James D. Ford, and Barry Smit, “Social–Ecological Change and Implications for Food Security in Funafuti, Tuvalu,” Ecology and Society 22, No. 1 (2017), accessed May 29, 2019, https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol22/iss1/art53/
  • 22. Mareva Kuchinke, Bronte Tilbrook, and Andrew Lenton, “Seasonal Variability of Aragonite Saturation State in the Western Pacific,” Marine Chemistry 161 (April 20, 2014): 1–13, https://doi.org/10.1016/j. marchem.2014.01.001.
  • 23. McCubbin et al., “Social–Ecological Change.”
  • 24. “FP015 Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project,” Green Climate Fund, accessed May 28, 2019, https://www. greenclimate.fund/projects/fp015.
  • 25. According to a study from 2016, more than 70 percent of households in Tuvalu felt that worsening floods, sea level-rise, saltwater intrusion, and drought would encourage their migration. Robert Oakes, Andrea Milan, Jillian Campbell, Koko Warner, and Markus Schindler, “Climate Change and Migration in the Pacific Links, Attitudes, and Future Scenarios in Nauru, Tuvalu, and Kiribati” (Bonn: United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security, 2017), https://i.unu. edu/media/ehs.unu.edu/news/11747/RZ_Pacific_EHS_ ESCAP_151201.pdf
  • 26. Robert Oakes et al., “Climate Change and Migration in the Pacific: Links, Attitudes, and Future Scenarios in Nauru, Tuvalu, and Kiribati” (Bonn, Germany: United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security, 2017), http://collections.unu.edu/view/ UNU:6515.
  • 27. Colette Mortreux and Jon Barnett, “Climate Change, Migration and Adaptation in Funafuti, Tuvalu.” Global Environmental Change 19, No. 1 (February 1, 2009): 105–12, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2008.09.006.
  • 28. Milan et al., Tuvalu: Climate Change and Migration, 37.
  • 29. Oakes et al., “Climate Change and Migration,” 3.
  • 30. In alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the small island developing states, SAMOA Pathway, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Paris Agreement, the Tuvaluan government created the 2016 National Action Plan to monitor and evaluate their agenda’s implementation. “Te Kakeega III: National Strategy for Sustainable Development 2016 to 2020,” Government of Tuvalu, (March 2016), https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/linked-documents/cobp-tuv-2017-2....
  • 31. Government of Tuvalu, “Te Kakeega III.”