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Island Nation of Tuvalu Threatened By Rising Waters Caused By Global Warming

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Enele Sopoaga, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Tuvalu to the United Nations, joins us in our studios to talk about global warming, the U.S. position on Kyoto and how small island nations deal with natural disasters. [includes rush transcript]

The Pacifica island nation of Tuvalu stands just 13 feet about the sea level at its highest point. It faces oblivion if global warming causes the sea to rise.

While the island was not affected by the tsunami, residents say routine flooding regularly into the middle of the island, destroying food crops and trees which have been there for decades.

Two years ago the government announced they might sue the United States and Australia because they have rejected the Kyoto protocol on global warming.

  • Ambassador Enele Sopoaga, is Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Tuvalu to the United Nations. He’s also vice-chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States, and he remains active on issues of climate change and global warming.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Enele Sopoaga. He is the Permanent Representative of Tuvalu at the United Nations. We welcome you to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the tsunami and how it has affected your own country?

ENELE SOPOAGA: Yes, certainly, the shocking and graphical situations in the Indian Ocean region have sent very alarming signals, causing worries to my people into Tuvalu and also the island countries in the Pacific, particularly those which are totally atolls, completely flat, not higher than three meters above sea level. This has created a lot of alarming amongst the people, the communities. Because knowing very well the situation that has affected the Maldives and low-lying coastal areas in island countries in the region of the Indian Ocean, it could also happen to them in the Pacific. We can share very much the magnitude of the devastation that has been caused by tsunami in the region of the Indian Ocean. We share very much the plight of the fates by those people. But so, even though we are far away in the center of the Pacific, we can very well share the worries and the shocking situation that is being faced by those people in Maldives and some other island countries in the Indian Ocean.

AMY GOODMAN: People might be surprised to hear that an island in the Pacific is now affected.

ENELE SOPOAGA: Well, maybe not physically, but of course, psychologically, and we have been worried, worrying a lot about the impacts of climate change, for example, that have in fact impacted very, very badly on island countries, and we believe that disasters are now exacerbated by global warming and climate change, and we have had situations in the Pacific, for example, Cyclone Heta, that devastated Niue, the island of Niue, and completely thrashed the economy of the island and the livelihood of the people, almost exactly one year to now. Many more, not only Niue. There were island countries like Samoa, Tonga in the Pacific. Now we have closer, more recent examples in other regions of small island countries, such as those in the Caribbean, for example. I mean, this just shows how vulnerable these island countries are, and how unprepared they are, and the lack of capacity they have, and also the necessity of improving that capacity.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think there’s a link between global warming and what we’re seeing, the devastation, in the Indian Ocean and the countries around it?

ENELE SOPOAGA: The devastations do not distinguish whether it is earthquakes or global warming. It just happens, and it hits directly on the capacity, on the need to improve capacity of low, vulnerable island countries. What we have seen in the past two days is a clear underscoring of the failure, the failure of the international community to prepare these countries to — by building their capacity in early warning systems. It’s disgrace for us to know — find out just now to realize after 40 years of the latest — you know, as serious earthquake as what just happened two days ago that the Indian Ocean is not included in the international early warning system.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you what exactly that early warning system is, but we have to break. When we come back, we will continue with the Permanent Representative of Tuvalu at the United Nations, Enele Sopoaga. This is Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by the U.N. Permanent Representative of Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga. He joins us in our studio now. The early warning system — For people to understand what exactly that means?

ENELE SOPOAGA: This is, of course, a capacity to observe the — the climate systems of the world and try to give out warning and improve weather forecasts. What we have in the Pacific, of course, supported by a center in Honolulu in Hawaii, is a system that helps us get early forecasts of weather, and, of course, warning as well, about the weather systems in the islands. This has been very helpful, indeed.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it work, exactly?

ENELE SOPOAGA: I don’t know exactly the technicalities of the system, but it does create a network that provides information throughout the islands, and this is very, very useful, given the fragmentation and the isolation nature of the islands in the Pacific. It is — We understand there is also a center in Alaska that provides this system, and, you know, helps to improve and maintain the system of warning, giving weather forecasts, and warning about cyclones and hurricanes that might be approaching your — your area. Now, of course, be that as it may, it does require infrastructure as well, at base. For example, on each of the islands, proper infrastructure to be able to make use of the information transmitted by these centers.

AMY GOODMAN: So these Pacific islands have it, but those islands in the Indian Ocean and the countries around the Indian Ocean had none?

ENELE SOPOAGA: We understand — I understand the Indian Ocean region is not included in the international global early warning system. That’s the information that I have. But, as it has been shown in the past two days, this — those countries which were not — were hard hit were not given early warning and are not included in the warning system.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the issue of global warming, though perhaps not directly affect — a cause here, it is certainly a cause you have taken on as the representative at the United Nations of Tuvalu and also representing small island nations. Can you talk about your lawsuit against the United States?

ENELE SOPOAGA: Well, the government and the people of Tuvalu are still considering it, the lawsuit. As bringing in — drawing in the rights of the people to exist and the injury that climate change has caused on the existence of people of Tuvalu. Of course, this is a extremely complicated issue, and the government is still considering it.

AMY GOODMAN: What is it? What is — how does climate change affect you, and why is this so critical. Why do you hold on to Kyoto.

ENELE SOPOAGA: It’s — it’s so critical. As I was describing earlier, Tuvalu is totally flat, is an atoll island country, and the sand is very porous, and is gravely threatened by sea level rise. Now, we do get swells, now and again, and, of course, the sea water is seeping through the soil, increasingly destroying the water — fresh water lenses and also food crops. Now — and at the same time, it’s causing serious erosion on the — on the [inaudible] areas of the island country — of the islands. This is also happening in other island countries in the Pacific. So, it is indeed climate change. It’s a serious issue. We know that cyclones, hurricanes are exacerbated by the effects of climate change, and also is causing a serious coral bleaching which is a source of livelihood in the sea. So, it’s really serious, and that’s why we have been following very, very closely the process of climate change under the convention on climate change and, of course, now under the Kyoto protocol that is due to enter into force in February.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean that the U.S. has unsigned the Kyoto protocol, has — is not endorsing it?

ENELE SOPOAGA: It’s unfortunate because, you know, a country such as the U.S. that has — that’s contributing about 25% of the CO2 greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, not to participate in this global effort, it does create some concerns. It’s unfortunate, but we — we hope that the U.S. would consider signing on to the Kyoto protocol. We certainly believe with the participation of the U.S. collectively that the international community can make a difference, and, you know, help reverse the situation against climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: In the small island nation organization that you represent, how many small islands are you talking about?

ENELE SOPOAGA: You are referring to the Alliance of Small Island States. Yes. We have forty-four island countries who are members of the Alliance of Small Island States. Those island countries are in the Pacific, in the Caribbean, and of course, in the Indian Ocean regions, and some, of course, in the South and Western African continent. This is a formidable grouping. Our main common concern is to address the vulnerability of small island countries against, particularly, climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve also taken on Australia in addition to the United States. Can you talk about Australia’s stance?

ENELE SOPOAGA: Well, I mean, Australia is a significant contributor as well to our greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. And we — we would like — we want to, you know, to — Australia to sign on and be party to the Kyoto protocol, because this is a global effort. It does — such a serious issue as climate change calls for the participation of all nations of the world. Only by working together that we can address this global problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you graphically describe what exactly does it mean when sea level rises for your country? What does it mean? How much does it have to rise to devastate the island, and the other islands that you represent, the small island states?

ENELE SOPOAGA: Indeed. Any slight increase in the level of the sea will seriously affect the livelihood of the people living on islands. The scientists have predicted that over the next fifty years, the level of the sea could rise up to 2.9 meters, which is quite, quite big for an island country which is hardly three meters above sea level. Now, of course, the sea doesn’t rise calmly. You have, you know — it does exacerbate and accelerate the impacts of — of waves, of strong winds, and cyclones. So, it does mean serious economic, environmental, of course, and social impacts on the island countries such as Tuvalu, and, of course, not only impacting on the four shores, but is coming through the water lenses and, of course, affecting badly the food crops, which is the main source of living of the island.

So, it’s — it’s really serious issue, and we have worked very, very closely with like-minded countries of the world to try to address this issue. So, what happened just two days ago, hitting Maldives, for example, does clearly underscore the necessity and the urgency to move beyond the problems of definitions, of hesitations, of uncertainty, and try to build the capacity of these vulnerable island countries to be able to cope with these disasters. Had the infrastructure in Maldives, for example, been put in place, had the people been more prepared, we wouldn’t be talking about losses of lives by now. It’s — it’s so ironic that we — at this age we are talking about gadgets, technological gadgets and all sorts of innovations that we have not put in place the capacity to address the vulnerability of these island countries and poor countries in the Indian Ocean. I — I personally feel this is — we should be ashamed of ourselves. We should be ashamed. The world should be ashamed of itself, to living parts of the island — of the world, those are most vulnerable at this level of situation.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States, the Bush administration, has said it will give $15 million to the effort. Your response to this, ambassador?

ENELE SOPOAGA: I think, of course, the gesture — the gesture is appreciated; but if we — if we focus on preventative and building capacity, this — to address the vulnerability instead of hesitations, instead of looking for definitions of these disasters and, of course, including climate change, their hesitation to join the Kyoto protocol, we would have saved lives much, much more than we are trying to respond now. Of course, you can give in any amount of money, but would that be able to return the loved ones of those people who have lost 40,000 in that region over two days? That would not — Of course, it would help; but my point is, addressing the vulnerability of these small island countries like the Maldives, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Sri Lanka and those in Indonesia is critical to us — to the human race. It’s better to prevent this by building the capacity, forewarning system, early warning system, put in place and, you know, instead of responding. So, I mean, I cannot comment directly on the amount level. I’m sure that the U.S. will still, you know, contribute in other ways, continue to increase its contributions, and also other countries; but the issue is addressing the vulnerability and building capacity for people to be able to cope with these disasters.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Enele Sopoaga, the permanent representative of Tuvalu at the United Nations and representing the Alliance of Small Island States.

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