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Hell and high water: When climate change comes lapping at your door

Climate-change refugee Sigeo Alesana and his youngest son, Alesana Jnr (AJ)

The world’s first climate change refugee now lives in a quiet suburb of Dunedin. For Sigeo Alesana, life in this southern city is a long, long way from the tide-scoured atolls of his Tuvalu homeland. Anke Richter reports.

As I approached Tuvalu in September 2007, the 70km ring of atolls in the South Pacific looked from above like an emerald necklace on blue velvet. Sigeo Alesana was living somewhere below me, five hours away by boat from the airport. He was teaching children at the local school on Vaitupu Island. I knew nothing about him, his life or his worries. And he didn’t know that only two months later, he would be leaving his country forever. 

No one paid much attention to us palagis, the fair-skinned foreigners, at the arrival shack. The islanders saw too many strangers come and go in those days. What brought me and others to the fourth-smallest nation in the world was not a Polynesian holiday, however, but climate change. Tuvalu – at just 26 square kilometres – had become the poster child for the growing global disaster.

Sea levels were rising four times faster in the Pacific region than in the rest of the world. The low-lying atolls had become one of the most environmentally vulnerable places on earth. We wanted to see a dying paradise for the last time.

The shoreline on the main island of Funafuti was never further away than 150m. Around 5000 people lived there; the other 6000 Tuvaluans were scattered across the outer islands. More and more of them were moving into the capital – officially the entire atoll of Funafuti – which was now bursting at the seams. It was crowded, noisy and colourful. I checked into the only hotel, together with a group of Japanese eco-tourists. A concrete ramp led into a lagoon scattered with litter. It smelled of faeces and rotting fish. From the ground, Tuvalu did not look like an eco-paradise at all.

About a third of Funafuti was covered by the tar-sealed runway. Since the planes only touched down twice a week, kids played there in the daytime. Dogs and pigs roamed around. In the evenings, families rolled out their mats to sleep on the cool ground because it got too hot in their cramped houses. The northern end of the 12km-long island was a big, smelly rubbish tip. There wasn’t enough ground to bury garbage. I passed the “borrow pits” – massive holes alongside the road, the size of tennis courts. They had been left there by the US army after World War II, when earth was dug out to build the military landing strip. Sixty-five years later, the pits still looked like bomb craters, filled with brackish water, used nappies and rusty fridges. Houses had been built on concrete pillars over these festering wounds; kids were playing in the toxic water. They waved at me: “Palagi, bye bye!”

In the past, travellers hardly ever came to this part of the world. Tuvalu’s link with the outside was on the water: hundreds of well-trained seafarers from this tiny nation work on international ships. Sigeo Alesana also had a dream of being a maritime engineer, but his father wanted him to become a teacher. Sigeo met Siga, a preschool teacher. They married; Siga got pregnant. The couple took the trip to the main island in time for the delivery at the hospital. But the umbilical cord became wrapped around the baby’s neck. There was no efficient care at the poorly equipped hospital. Siga lost a lot of blood, her life was at risk. They asked for emergency transport to Fiji, but no planes could land in Funafuti at night. Siga survived; her first son didn’t.

Two years later, she lost her second child to stillbirth. A caesarean would have saved the baby’s life. Her husband began looking for work overseas. Some 3500 Tuvaluans live in New Zealand (according to the 2013 census), many employed as seasonal workers, but Sigeo did not get any of those temporary placements. He was still dreaming of starting his own family. His two babies were buried on Funafuti, victims of poor infrastructure and lack of resources. I might have passed their little gravesites when I rode around the island on a moped.

“Erosion” was on the sightseeing list. The higher the tide washed up, the more exposed the tree roots became. Bleached-grey palm trees were lying on the coral rubble like felled giants. Japanese tourists took pictures. We rode across the lagoon in a dinghy to the islet of Tepuka Savilivili. Those two words rolled off my lips almost as easily as “ratifying the Kyoto Protocol” by then, as one of the hundreds of journalists, NGO volunteers and consultants who visited Tuvalu in those years. Tepuka Savilivili was presented to us as the “Ground Zero” of Oceania: a small, brownish-grey elevation in the water, only a few metres wide. Palm trees had grown on it once. When I saw it, it was as bleak as the moon’s surface. The only spot of colour was a piece of red Styrofoam from a buoy. Three tropical cyclones had destroyed all the vegetation in 1997.

Strictly speaking, this “sinking island” had not sunk, but climate change has produced a flurry of cyclones in the region. In March 2015, Cyclone Pam ripped through the Pacific, causing 16 deaths (mostly in Vanuatu) and $600 million worth of damage. 

On the way to Tuvalu, I’d visited Dr Arthur Webb, an expert on coastal management at the Pacific Islands Applied GeoScience Commission (SOPAC) in Suva, Fiji. “Of course climate change is a massive problem,” he said. “But it’s not everything that’s happening in Tuvalu, only a part of it.”

He talked about tide cycles that occur over decades, even centuries, and explained that erosion is a natural as well as a “man-made” process. In the past, men lived in greater harmony with their changing shores, he said. Now, in many Pacific islands, they were building up those shores with badly constructed sea walls – using sand taken from the beaches.

“All the environmental problems that exist in Tuvalu are made worse by climate change,” Webb told me. “Urbanised atoll societies are some of the most fragile places on Earth.”

Funafuti – the main island of Tuvalu and the capital – is now regularly flooded by sea water.

In 2007, when I visited Tuvalu, the toxic “borrow pits” were a bigger ecological disaster for Funafuti than the gradual rising of the sea level. The hydrology on the atoll was badly affected by the pits. Only in 2015 did New Zealand start cleaning up these eyesores and filling them with soil – a $10 million project funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. A new sand pump is running in the lagoon. But the freshwater lens is still damaged; the vital layer of rainwater that seeps through the soil and sits below sea level under each atoll, feeding the plant roots and wells. And since the palm-frond roofs have been replaced by tin sheets to catch drinking water, less rain makes it to the ground.

Toaripi Lauti became Tuvalu’s first prime minister when the country became independent in 1978. The venerable statesman led me from his house to his pulaka pit, slowly setting one stiff foot in front of the other. The starchy swamp taro is a staple for the people of Tuvalu.

“Look at this.” He pointed at one of the leaves. “Yellow.” It was hot and humid, standing between the plants. Lauti bent down and poked the ground with a stick. “We don’t plant deep enough anymore because the salt water gets through. That means a smaller harvest.” He sounded weary. “And our young people don’t get the coconuts from the trees anymore. Too lazy. Everything is changing.”

Trees felled by coastal erosion.

Tuvalu is a Christian country; its motto and anthem is “Tuvalu mo te Atua” (Tuvalu for the Almighty). On Sundays, no sports games or music are allowed. In many households, the Bible is the only book. The scripture says God promised Noah not to send another flood to Earth. At the time of my visit, this prophecy carried more weight than the warnings of scientists. For the older generation, it was sacrilegious to speak of a catastrophe.

“No one here feels acutely threatened,” said Pasemeta Talaapa waving away flies in her small office on Funafuti. The outspoken, grey-haired woman administered aid money from Australia, New Zealand and the European Union. “We have other problems to deal with… drinking, diabetes, obesity. Corruption and domestic violence.” She sighed. “Who still goes fishing? It’s easier to open a tin of mackerels.”

Tuvalu’s waters had some of the highest densities of fish in the Pacific, but the fishing licences had been sold to Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

A puddle was growing in front of the meeting house, minute by minute. Within half an hour, it reached the size of a swimming pool. The day I was there, the tide had gone above three metres for the first time that year. I stared at the ground, fascinated. It seemed more like a sieve. For the islanders, the bubbling brooks that sprang up everywhere were nothing special. No one stopped to look.

The prime minister was busy writing a speech for Independence Day. I asked his secretary of state why Tuvalu had become the poster child for climate change. “Because we cry the loudest,” he said. For what reason? “For money and passports.” They were looking for ways to relocate their people.

I left Tuvalu the next day, laden with beautiful shell necklaces. But many illusions about the “sinking paradise” that I’d arrived with were left behind. 

A road through the narrowest part of Tuvalu’s main island, Funafuti.

In November 2007, Sigeo and Siga Alesana set out to visit their relatives in New Zealand over Christmas. They took very little luggage, flew to Fiji and applied for visitor visas from there. When they arrived in Auckland in December, Siga was pregnant again. That changed everything, as she couldn’t risk another complicated delivery. Sigeo extended their visas, but from the end of 2008 they were illegal overstayers. Their son Tupou was born, induced early to avoid another difficult birth. He most likely would not have survived in Tuvalu.

Sigeo got a job at McDonalds, and his driving licence. In 2011, another son, Tolise, was born. Both parents wanted to stay in New Zealand, where Sigeo’s sisters were living. They’d been granted residency through marriage and the Pacific Access Category. The Alesanas’ attempt to apply for refugee status on the grounds of climate change in Tuvalu failed, however, because they were not threatened by terror, war or prosecution. Climate change isn’t covered under the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which dates back to 1951.

Sigeo’s permanent residency application dragged on for years. Finally, in 2014, he was given a hearing. For hours, he told the tribunal about his country, his family, his despair. He knew he had nothing to hide but much to lose: a safe home and his children’s future. That August, he was granted New Zealand residency on humanitarian grounds.

Pulaka – swamp taro – crops killed by salt water as ocean-level rise forces up sea water through the island of Funafuti.

First, he called his wife. They both cried with a mixture of joy and relief. Had Sigeo come to New Zealand on his own, without a family, he would have been deported. The effects of climate change on Tuvalu were mentioned in the tribunal’s decision, but his children’s fate was crucial: they would be suffering the most from the hardship, the lack of water and resources in Tuvalu. And so Sigeo Alesana was heralded as the first official climate-change refugee in the world – without legally having refugee status. That same year, there were 19.3 million people fleeing natural disasters around the world.

Early this year, the Alesana family moved to Dunedin to escape Auckland’s escalating cost of living. Sigeo has a job at a coffee factory. The family’s rented, weatherboard house in the quiet suburb of Brockville has three bedrooms and a garden of flowering trees – a far cry from the littered, salt-bleached backyards of their island home. They live just west of the CBD on high ground; ironically, South Dunedin is one of New Zealand’s urban zones most vulnerable to floods and a rising ocean.

When I arrive, the 37-year-old greets me; Sigeo is a muscular man with a shaved head and alert eyes. Tupou, eight, and Tolise, five, run up and down the hallway. It’s a happy home. Siga sits in the lounge in a long dress, a baby tucked to one breast. Only a few weeks earlier, their third son was born by caesarean section.  

The walls are decorated with Tupou’s sports awards and Bible quotes. Sigeo talks softly. “My family is the most important thing to me. In Tuvalu, the community mattered the most. You are always together.”

But island culture is not for him any longer. “When you come to a new place, you adapt.” He misses Tuvaluan food; sometimes he buys cassava, coconuts and taro from the local Polynesian shop. “Taro doesn’t taste quite like pulaka,” he says. “But my kids prefer bread.” He laughs quietly. Siga gets up and comes back with a plate of biscuits.

“I was poor.” Sigeo’s voice is even softer now. “I had nothing, and I suffered because of that. I want to make my kids’ dreams come true.”

Doesn’t that make him an economic refugee in the eyes of the world? For the first time, he looks me straight in the face. His voice is firm again.

“I am a true climate-change refugee. In my heart I am.” He puts his hand on his chest. “Where I come from, climate change has an effect on everything. Everything. I am Christian, but I am also a teacher. My favourite subject was science. I understood what was happening around us.”

Children negotiate rising floodwaters as the sea inundates Funafuti during a king tide.

Siga whispers something from the chair in the corner. She is shy. Her husband holds out his hand in front of his knees. “This is how high the pawpaw and banana plants grew. Too small. The ground is too salty.” He sighs. “Our house used to be 200m from the water. Now it’s just 100m. In 10 years, it might disappear. We lived in fear.”

The ground beneath their feet was a risk, as was the water they drank, says Sigeo. “A drought is normal these days. Even the water in the well gets salty. We had skin infections when we grew up. I want [clean] water for my children.”

When I ask him if he had a happy childhood, he goes quiet. “No,” he says, finally, not looking up. “I grew up in the wrong family. I am glad to be away from them.” Sigeo didn’t inherit any family land because the older cousin came first. His father and his uncle were constantly fighting, a decades-old dispute that often turned violent. “We never laughed, no one talked to each other.”

Once, he and another boy were sent off to collect coconuts. The uncle chased them away with his machete. “We came home empty-handed.” Sigeo is almost whispering now, staring at the carpet. It hurts him to bring this up. It’s another reason for his escape – a deeply personal and painful situation, made worse by the desperate struggle for land in a country that is running out of it. Sigeo sits up straight again.

“If we all leave, then our culture and identity will be lost, too. That is very sad. But for me, my family comes first. Tuvalu comes second.”

I tell them about my visit to Funafuti 10 years earlier, about no one officially leaving the country because of climate change then; about my mixed feelings of being part of a somewhat staged presentation by Tuvaluan officials for the outside world – although a justified one from a political and environmental perspective.

Happily relocated to Dunedin: Sigeo and Siga Alesana with Sigeo’s mother, Segalo, and their three sons (from left), Tolise, AJ and Tupou.

But it didn’t address the real problems of a fragile atoll society that was alternatively idealised, neglected or exploited by the West. Only a handful of people have applied as climate-change refugees in New Zealand so far. One of them, Ioane Teitiota from Kiribati, failed and was deported in September 2015. When I met him a year earlier, I learned it’s taboo in the islands to call yourself a climate-change refugee, because it makes the place you come from look bad.

How does Sigeo Alesana handle that? It took him two years to agree to this first interview after his case made headlines around the world. “There are many of us from Tuvalu who would not admit to being refugees,” he says. “They would not say it out loud. But I can do it now, for them.” As soon as he is eligible, Sigeo wants to apply for New Zealand citizenship.

The legal question mark remains. The Alesanas’ case and less-fortunate applicants such as Teitiota don’t fit the outdated UN refugee convention. A new, protection-focused international framework called the Nansen Initiative is emerging; it’s based on “international consensus” and “operational responses to disasters”. It could open the door – if not the floodgate – to Pacific people under threat of inundation.

Tupou runs back into the lounge. He knows Tuvalu only from pictures on the internet. There are no old family photos. “We did not own a camera,” says his father, slightly embarrassed. He is not planning a visit. It’s too expensive to fly there. He wants to save his money to buy his first house this year. And there are too many old conflicts, too much unhappiness to revisit. But the little boy who loves rugby and soccer is keen. He shouts out: “I want to see how people sleep on the runway!” Overpopulation and poverty are just a curiosity for him.

I hope Tupou gets to experience a “plane day” in Funafuti. When my plane took off, a flock of white birds lifted up and circled like a wave between the palm trees. I had never seen anything like it. From both above and below.


This was published in the June 2017 issue of North & South.

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