Tuvalu's global warming fear

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As Western governments debate the fate of the Kyoto protocol, citizens of the tiny South Pacific nation of Tuvalu have asked Australia and New Zealand to provide them with shelter when their country becomes uninhabitable as a result of rising sea levels.

As Western governments debate the fate of the Kyoto protocol, citizens of the tiny South Pacific nation of Tuvalu have asked Australia and New Zealand to provide them with shelter when their country becomes uninhabitable as a result of rising sea levels.

Tuvalu, which consists of nine coral atolls, is one of the world's lowest-lying states. Just a few metres above sea level at its highest point, it is already suffering the effects of global warming: flooding, coastal erosion and rising salinity. The government fears that the entire population of 11,000 will have to be resettled within a few decades.

The Acting Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Pusinelli Lafai, said yesterday that New Zealand had given a sympathetic response to the request to provide Tuvaluans with new homes if they become environmental refugees. Australia, however, had given it short shrift.

Mr Lafai said that when the matter was raised by Tuvaluan delegates at a meeting in Canberra earlier this year, "the statement was hardly out of their mouths before the Australian delegation shut it up".

Tuvalu, a Commonwealth member, has a total landmass of just nine square miles, few natural resources and no exports. Subsistence farming and fishing are its primary economic activities, although it also earns revenue from the sale of its ".tv" Internet domain name. Some of its citizens have already left, emigrating to New Zealand and the United States.

The acting assistant secretary at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Paani Laupepa, said: "The island is full of holes and seawater is coming through these, flooding areas that weren't normally flooded 10 or 15 years ago. There are projections of about 50 years (before the islands disappear.) After this, we will be drowned."

Tuvalu and a clutch of other South Pacific nations, including Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, are considered most vulnerable to the rise in sea levels attributed to global warming.

The Australian Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, said yesterday that Australia would be prepared to join a coordinated international response to an environmental disaster. However, Tuvaluans would not be granted special treatment and would be expected to apply under the regular migration programme.

"It is not, at the moment, an issue in which the populations of those countries are at risk," Mr Ruddock said. "They have to meet the normal migration criteria that apply to anybody, anywhere in the world, who wants to come to Australia."

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