Greening the Islands Foundation

Facing extinction, Tuvalu considers the digital clone of a country

As the climate emergency threatens its existence, the tiny Pacific nation is not only trying to reclaim physical land but create a ‘twin’ to survive in future. ‘It’s absolutely guaranteed’: the best and worst case scenarios for sea level rise. 

 When Lily Teafa was growing up in Tuvalu, her uncles would go fishing every day and come home with a big catch to share with the neighbours. Now, they’ll come home most days and say “sei poa” or “bad catch”.

The 28-year-old, who works with a youth-led organisation on climate change projects such as coral restoration in the tiny Pacific nation, says signs of her homeland slipping away are everywhere.

“Whenever we go for a picnic, especially at the northern and southern ends of this beautiful island, we always notice that a piece of land has been washed away by the sea.”

Tuvalu is expected to be one of the first countries in the world to be completely lost to climate change. The three coral islands and six atolls that make up the country have a total land mass of less than 26 sq km. At current rates of sea level rise, some estimates suggest that half the land area of the capital, Funafuti, will be flooded by tidal waters within three decades. By 2100, 95% of land will be flooded by periodic king tides, making it essentially uninhabitable. That’s within Teafa’s lifetime.

The question of survival is an urgent one. Teafa says that for youth in particular, fear is the predominant emotion. “It’s the worst feeling ever; worse than being afraid of heights, afraid of the dark. Now we’re afraid of the future.”

Fongafale island in the Funafuti atoll, Tuvalu. Photograph: Sean Gallagher
In the face of this reality, work is under way in Tuvalu to reclaim land, along with attempts to preserve its culture and history online, in groundbreaking plans that could see Tuvalu become the first wholly digitised nation existing in the metaverse.

A precarious existence

Funafuti covers the entirety of the atoll on which it is located, with one main road bisecting the length of the island, at one point narrowing to 20 metres between opposite shorelines. Most buildings already cluster as close to the centre of the island as possible; homes, shops, churches and community halls are positioned right up to the edge of the road. Passing by, you can see directly into people’s homes – in their kitchens, cooking on open fires, fixing their cars – while children play in the yards.

The waters are rising so fast that Tuvaluans everywhere recount stories of finding themselves standing knee deep in seawater, which bubbles up through the porous ground in the centre of the island. Erosion and large amounts of washed-up debris are evident along the exterior coastline. Remnants of infrastructure and vacated homes lie abandoned along the edges of the shore. Cemeteries are being worn away and residents have resorted to creating tombs next to their homes.

The surging waters, fuelled by the climate crisis, also pose extreme risk to drinking water, food security and energy supply. Critical subsistence food crops such as coconuts and pulaka (taro) are failing in the high-salinity soil and weather and temperature changes bring devastating cyclones, record temperatures and more frequent periods of drought. Fresh food is almost nonexistent, making the population more reliant on imported products, which are expensive and lack nutritional value.

 Children ride bikes on the airport runway in Funafuti. Photograph: Kalolaine Fainu/The Guardian
 At its narrowest point, there is just 20m between opposite shorelines on Funafuti. Photograph: Kalolaine Fainu/The Guardian
Foreman Uilla Poliata remembers fishing with his father as a child, hunting for food to eat.

“That is the only way we survive, on our local food. But now it is very hard to get the food from the land, plantations are damaged by saltwater, even the land is being taken away by the sea.”

‘Betraying my people’

About a fifth of Tuvalu’s population of 12,000 have already relocated, many to New Zealand under the Pacific Access Category, a ballot that allows up to 150 citizens to be granted residence in New Zealand every year. Many struggle to earn a living and are concerned about losing their cultural identity.

Kelesoma Saloa has been living in New Zealand for more than 10 years and feels a strong sense of dislocation. “Coming from a self-sufficient society to a very commercialised society is so, so difficult,” he says. “If you have no money here, you can’t survive. Not like in the islands, if you have no money, you have your family, your small land, your fish.”

Saloa, a former fisheries officer in Tuvalu, now works as a guide and educator at the Auckland War Memorial museum. “I feel sometimes that I betrayed my people, that I walked away from my people. But I have the chance to talk about the plight of my people here.”

 Piles of debris washed up on Tuvalu’s coastline after king tides. Photograph: Kalolaine Fainu/The Guardian

Although Saloa migrated to ensure a more certain future for his family, he does not think relocation is the solution. “My third child was born in New Zealand so she doesn’t know anything about Tuvalu; she’s lost something that’s so important. It makes me sad; she has lost those beautiful Tuvalu values she should have grown up with: respect, helping each other, working together – we don’t have it over here; they teach it in school but it’s totally different.”

Australia has offered land for relocation but only in exchange for maritime and fisheries rights, a proposal rejected by the Tuvaluan government. Neighbouring Fiji has also offered land but is battling its own climate change threats. Since there is no current provision for the protection and assistance of climate refugees under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, Tuvaluans are looking to other options.

Push to reclaim land

There is no higher land on which to rebuild but many Tuvaluans do not want to leave their ancestral home. Operations are already under way to reclaim land under the Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project. Launched in 2017 with backing from the global Green Climate Fund and in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme, the project aim’s is to reduce exposure to coastal hazards and provide a longer-term adaptation strategy for the country, called the L-TAP or “Te Lafiga o Tuvalu” (Tuvalu’s Refuge) Project.

 The land adaptation project under way in Funafuti. Photograph: Kalolaine Fainu/The Guardian
The collection and analysis of high-quality land elevation and sea-floor depth data shows that 46% of the central built area of the largest of Funafuti’s islets, Fongafale, is, in effect, already below sea level. This data is crucial to the evolution of L-TAP. The vision: 3.6 sq km of raised, safe land with staged relocation of people and infrastructure over time; a sustainable water supply; greater food and energy security; and space for expanding civic and commercial areas, including government offices, schools and hospitals. The minister of finance and economic development and the minister responsible for climate change in Tuvalu, Seve Paeniu, says the aim is to demonstrate to current and potential international funding agencies the viability of investing in the longer-term project.
 Seve Paeniu, the finance and climate change minister, walks along the foreshore. Photograph: Kalolaine Fainu/The Guardian

Poliata, who used to work as a seafarer before studying theology, is now a local foreman on the project. “It’s a big challenge but it also gives me new experience,” he says. “I didn’t know you could suck the sand from the lagoon and make more land.”

Poliata believes the reclaimed land will help the community to make a living and provide an incentive to stay. “As Tuvaluans, we have to stay here and protect our country, because if we save Tuvalu, we also save the world.”

A digital twin

In 2021, Tuvalu’s minister for justice, communications and foreign affairs, Simon Kofe, made headlines when he addressed Cop26, the UN climate change conference, standing knee-deep in seawater. “We are sinking,” he told the world.

 Locals make their way home as the sun sets in Tuvalu. Photograph: Kalolaine Fainu/The Guardian
Facing potential extinction, Tuvalu has formulated the Future Now Project, a set of three major initiatives designed to preserve its nationhood, governance and culture in the event of a worst-case scenario. First, encouraging the international community to work together on implementing climate-change solutions, embodying the Tuvaluan cultural values of “olaga fakafenua” (communal living systems), “kaitasi” (shared responsibility) and “fale-pili” (being a good neighbour). Second, securing Tuvalu’s statehood and maritime boundaries under international law in the event their land ceases to exist. Third, the development of a digital nation.
 Simon Kofe, Tuvalu’s minister for justice, communications and foreign affairs. ‘We are at the forefront of climate change, yet we contribute negligibly to climate change through emissions.’ Photograph: Kalolaine Fainu/The Guardian

One strand of the digitising process involves transferring access to government and consular services and all accompanying administrative systems into the cloud. This would enable elections to continue to be held, and government bodies to continue in their roles.

“If we have a displaced government or population dispersed across the globe, we would have a framework in place to ensure that we continue to coordinate ourselves, continue to deliver our services, manage our natural resources in our waters and all our sovereign assets,” Kofe says.

 Kofe gives a Cop26 statement while standing in the ocean in Funafuti in November 2021. Photograph: Tuvalu Foreign Ministry/Reuters
Kofe’s address during Cop27 last year was recorded in front of a virtual copy of Te Afualiku, the first island in Tuvalu to be digitally recreated through satellite imagery, photos and drone footage able to capture grains of sand on the beach and the direction of water currents in the ocean. Te Afualiku is the blueprint for the digitisation of all Tuvalu’s islands and its geography; the coral atolls and reefs, the lagoon, the porous sandy soil, the palm trees and what is left of the pandanus, breadfruit and taro – a landscape that may cease to exist in the real world. Singapore, also vulnerable to the threat of rising sea levels, has already created a digital twin of itself that informs decisions around urban planning and development in preparation for a potential natural disaster.
 Part of the Funafuti coastline where land is being reclaimed and extended. Photograph: Kalolaine Fainu/The Guardian

Tuvalu, however, is taking this concept one step further. Confronted with the prospect of losing its cultural identity, the government is examining how to use augmented and virtual reality to allow displaced and future generations of Tuvaluans to continue to exist as both a culture and a nation, complete with ancestral knowledge and value systems. If this concept becomes a reality, the Tuvaluan people will be able to interact with one another in a digital dimension, in a way that imitates real life and helps to preserve shared language and customs.

 A couple on a motorbike pass through the narrowest point of Fongafale island in the Funafuti atoll. Photograph: Sean Gallagher
“We have such a strong connection with our land and our oceans, our ancestors are buried here, so we have that spiritual connection as well,” Kofe tells the Guardian. “We want to be able to capture our culture as it is today.”

Nobody has yet demonstrated that nation-states can be successfully translated to the virtual world in this way – the technical, social and political challenges are immense – and Kofe emphasises that the government is still in the early stages. He adds that a number of metaverse companies reached out to Tuvalu after his Cop27 address, and cited an upcoming trip to Korea to advance the project.

Preserving a rich culture

Like most Pacific Island nations, Tuvalu is a devout Christian country. Every day at 6.45pm, all traffic and people in the streets must come to a complete stop until 7pm, to respect a national time of devotion. Hymns are sung in spirited harmony and church groups gather at community halls to feast and dance. The faitele is a traditional dance performed to a beat tapped out on an empty tin that once held cabin biscuits; drummers slap their hands along a communal wooden drum, building the beat up faster and faster until the dancers can’t keep up and the group erupts in laughter. Older women pass down protocols to youngsters on how to greet elders in the fale kaupule, the traditional meeting hall.

 Locals take part in traditional dancing during church celebrations in Funafuti. Photograph: Kalolaine Fainu/The Guardian
 Members of the Bahá’í church in Funafuti celebrate the end of fasting at a community hall. Photograph: Kalolaine Fainu/The Guardian
This is what Tuvalu wants to capture and preserve: stories and experiences in their cultural and socio-historical context, as well as their evolution over time. For the diaspora in particular, a digital nation could accommodate everything from traditional wedding ceremonies to the language that successive generations are beginning to lose.

Saloa is enthusiastic about the idea of a digital twin, a reflection of the deep homesickness he feels. “It sounds crazy but I think it’s a great idea,” he says.

“Tuvalu is at the crossroads of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia and we have learned a lot from each other: we are all brothers and sisters. How we settled and survived for 2,000 years on those small islands, how we cultivated the land and survived droughts and famine and sickness, how our culture changed with the arrival of the Palangi [caucasians], how Samoan pastors influenced our language. And the sea. The sea has always been our lifeline but now it has become a threat … so what do we do? Create this space!”

Teafa agrees Tuvalu needs to explore a possible digital future but says some things should still be learned firsthand.

“Personally, I don’t want to learn my culture from technology, from a metaverse, I want to learn it physically, on the land where I grew up, with the people that I grew up with, with the language that I speak every day.”

Others hold concerns about who would own and control their data.

 The international airstrip in Funafuti, which runs down the centre of the widest part of the island. Photograph: Kalolaine Fainu/The Guardian

Facing the unexpected

Kofe describes the Future Now project as plan B, but reiterates that plan A is to do everything in their power to save the island for as long as possible.

“We are at the forefront of climate change, yet we contribute negligibly to climate change through emissions – and therefore the responsibility should squarely fall on the shoulders of the large emitting countries to really take proactive and ambitious action,” minister Paeniu says.

 An aerial view of the tip of the atoll island at the southern end of Funafuti. Photograph: Kalolaine Fainu/The Guardian

For now, Rev Fitilau Puapua, president of the Tuvalu Christian Church, reiterates the importance of maintaining culture, values and religion, no matter what happens.

“This is what we are trying to teach our people, get them ready to face the unexpected – a world that is very different to the one that they have been living in all their lives.”

Or as Saloa puts it: “People are hiding their [traditional] knowledge for their own families, but it’s time to reveal it to the world. Because soon no one will remember you as a Tuvaluan.”


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