King tides cause new levels of devastation in Tuvalu, as nation weighs up Falepili Union treaty

King tides cause new levels of devastation in Tuvalu, as nation weighs up Falepili Union treaty
  • PublishedApril 7, 2024

Angela Telupe watched her backyard flood as a king tide tightened its grip on the main island of Tuvalu.

Outside her home in northern Funafuti, her children swam in an area the family usually uses for picnics.

“On the second day the tide just kept coming up,” Ms Telupe said.

“It didn’t go down. It just kept coming up for three to four days.”

Water bubbles as a car passes in the background during flooding from a king tide in early 2024.
Angela Telupe’s property flooded when king tides hit Funafuti in February.(Supplied: Angela Telupe)

The February king tide flooded and damaged parts of the main road on the island, pushed rocks onto the land, and inundated homes and crops.

And Tuvalu’s authorities say it hit areas that had not been flooded during previous king tides.

Tuvalu Meteorological Service data and communication officer Simoea Tiute said the February king tide was the worst she had seen in her life in Tuvalu.

“The sea level at the time was right in the land,” she said.

King tides happen every year in Tuvalu. They usually flood low-lying areas, but February’s weather event was different to what Tuvaluans had seen before. 

It grew larger through heavy rainfall, strong winds and waves, topping 3.41 metres — above the predicted 3.3-metre level.

Seawater spills onto the road in Funafuti, Tuvalu during a king tide, as a car travels down the road.
King tides damaged roads near the coast in Funafuti, Tuvalu.(Supplied: Tuvalu Meteorological Service)

The flooding came as Tuvalu considered the Falepili Union treaty, which would let its people escape the impacts of rising sea levels by migrating to Australia.

Tuvalu’s newly elected Prime Minister Feleti Teo has confirmed his government will ratify the treaty, despite concerns about a clause letting Australia veto any security agreement Tuvalu reaches with another country.

“After talking with the Australian officials, we have entered into an arrangement that satisfies us … the whole treaty itself can be brought to a halt in only 12 months if Tuvalu perceives that its sovereignty has been breached or violated by the arrangement of the treaty,” he said.

“The flow-on benefits of the treaty itself far outweigh that particular perspective.

“The new administration has undertaken to proceed with the treaty with the assurance that that provision will never be abused by Australia.”

The February king tide, and another that followed in March, raised questions for some Tuvaluans about how long they could continue to live in their home country.

Children swim around debris in a flooded backyard during a king tide on Funafuti, Tuvalu.
Children swim in the flooded backyard of Angela Telupe’s home in Funafuti, Tuvalu, during king tides in February.(Supplied: Angela Telupe)

Ms Telupe said her family would consider moving to Australia under the Falepili Union if many more king tides arrived with such force.

But like many Tuvaluans, while she welcomes having the option to leave, she wants to continue practising her nation’s culture.

And there are others who say they won’t leave their home country.

‘How long do I have?’

School teacher Tevaolagi Elisala, 168.5cm tall, waded through almost knee-deep water on Funafuti when the next king tide hit in March.

“We looked towards the ocean and the water level was actually surprisingly high,” she said.

“The waves would crash onto the shore. The reef and the stones — everything was just scattered all over the road.”

The sea level appears high on the coast, with ships in the background, during a king tide at Funafuti, Tuvalu.
Witnesses said the sea level appeared high during the recent king tides.(Supplied: Tuvalu Meteorological Service)

In some places, the water appeared to seep up through the ground.

“It was actually quite frightening to see,” Ms Elisala said.

The March king tide was expected to reach 3.32 metres but rose to 3.38 metres — short of the February peak, but high enough to flood parts of Funafuti.

She watched the flooding with her son Alfred.

“I was thinking to myself … how long do I have with my son to live in this place before it totally disappears?”

The UN has described Tuvalu — which has a population of about 11,000 — as being “on the extreme front lines of the global climate emergency”.

Mark Howden, an Australian National University climatologist and the vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says sea level rises could affect low-lying island nations such as Tuvalu by eroding and redepositing land.

It could also reduce their access to fresh water. 

Dr Howden said the rise in the sea level was accelerating and would change how king tides affected communities.

“The tides themselves are caused by movements of the Moon relative to the Earth, and that isn’t particularly influenced by climate change,” Dr Howden said.

“But what does happen is as the sea level rises on average … it means that any given king tide could go further inland than it otherwise would, causing more floods.”

Treaty to go ahead

It is rising sea levels that have led to talks about the Falepili Union between Tuvalu and Australia.

The treaty would initially let 280 Tuvaluans migrate to Australia each year on permanent resident visas.

Tuvalu Prime Minister Feleti Teo said securing the new migration pathway was an achievement.

Feleti Teo standing outside. 
Feleti Teo was elected as Tuvalu’s prime minister in February. (Wikimedia Commons: KEAB)

“Most Tuvaluans, if you ask them, they don’t want to leave Tuvalu. They want to stay here,” he said.

“But for those of them for their own reasons that decide to move, I think it’s the government’s responsibility to create those pathways for them to be able to migrate with dignity, rather than being compelled and forced to leave.”

Tuvaluan journalist Puaseiese Adrienne Pedro said young people were showing interest in migrating to Australia, particularly for jobs and study.

She said many were already leaving the country through seasonal worker schemes in Australia and New Zealand due to unemployment at home.

Some of them also identified climate change as a reason for going overseas, she said.

“Here already we have limited lands. And because of sea level rise, the land is intruded by sea water.”

A ‘severed connection’

Ms Elisala is open to migrating to Australia if climate change makes it too hard to stay in Tuvalu.

She said it could also open up education opportunities for her son which she didn’t have.

But she is also mindful of what she and her son would lose.

Tevaogali Elisala sitting on the foreshore.
Tevaolagi Elisala appreciates having the option to move to Australia but does not want Tuvaluan culture to disappear.(ABC News: Puaseiese Adrienne Pedro)

“The feeling of belonging, the feeling of the deep-rooted connection to my ancestors through the land, through the sea, through the trees, and the rich history our people have in this place,” she said.

“This is the place where our ancestors lay.

“And to think to leave them behind, to leave the connection, if we have to relocate the whole country, that means we sever that connection with our ancestors and our history, with everything that’s in our land.”

She hopes Tuvalu’s culture doesn’t disappear if Tuvaluans move to Australia.

Former Tuvalu prime minister and current MP Enele Sopoaga — a fierce critic of the Falepili Union treaty — said Tuvalu should not be “subsumed” into Australia if its people migrated because of climate change.

Tuvalu prime minister Enele Sopoaga addresses the UN General Assembly standing at a lectern.
Tuvalu’s former prime minister Enele Sopoaga has been critical of the Falepili Union treaty.(AFP: Angela Weiss)

Mr Sopoaga said there was a need to protect the rights of Tuvalu to exist as a nation and community regardless of climate change.

“Whether these things are being taken care of by the Falepili Union, I’m not sure,” he said.

The office of Australia’s Pacific Minister Pat Conroy was approached but did not comment. However, the treaty would recognise Tuvalu’s continuing statehood in the face of climate change.

Mr Teo believes Tuvaluans can keep their culture alive if they move to Australia.

“Any ethnic group in Australia are not constrained in practising their own [culture]. So I hope Tuvaluans that move there will have the same liberty of expressing … their belief and cultures,” Mr Teo said.

‘Tuvalu is my home’

For many in the country — including many older Tuvaluans — the desire to stay is stronger than any urge to leave.

Mr Teo said Tuvalu contributed very little to climate change, and the solution to the problem lay outside the country.

“It needs a global effort to be able to turn the tide on climate change,” he said.

Dr Howden said Tuvalu could remain habitable if the world rapidly reduced its greenhouse gas emissions.

“That only occurs though if we put our foot on the greenhouse gas emission brake,” he said.

“And if we do that, we can keep [an increase in] temperatures down to probably just over 1.5 degrees [Celsius], which will still generate a lot of sea level rise and a lot of climate change.

“But it’s well short of these scenarios which would occur if we keep on doing what we’re doing, which is essentially record levels of greenhouse gas emissions year on year.”

A wave crashes and water floods the balcony of a house in Funafuti, Tuvalu.
Water washes through a building in Funafuti during a king tide.(Supplied: Tuvalu Meteorological Service)

In the meantime, the Tuvalu government plans to build sea walls to minimise the impact of future king tides and it is working to reclaim land in response to rising seas.

For Ms Pedro, she has no plans to leave, and like many Tuvaluans, she finds strength in her faith as climate change makes itself felt.

“We believe that God did not leave us here in Tuvalu to let us die here in Tuvalu,” she said.

“I believe Tuvalu is my home and I was meant to be put here and I will live here.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *