Vanishing islands look to the world

Taukiei Kitara has travelled a long way from the South Pacific island of Tuvalu to get a simple message across to the thousands of international delegates attending the climate change talks in Bangkok. He wants to tell them that if they don't do something, and fast, rising sea levels will swamp the low-lying tropical islands located midway between Australia and Hawaii he calls home. "I want the world to know that we are one of the most vulnerable countries, and we are here," said Mr Kitara.

But the fisherman-turned-activist has failed so far to get the 4,000 climate change negotiators to lift their heads out of technical texts and come up with a timely solution for people like him. The Bangkok meeting is the second last before the crucial Copenhagen talks later in the year, where it's hoped a climate pact will be struck to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

The talks, which kicked off on Monday, have not made further progress on previous meetings, especially in the crucial areas of requiring developed countries to make deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and developing countries to also do their part.

There are complicated reports to consider and so many meetings to attend that the delegates are too busy to listen to the "smaller" voices.

"I'm nervous and I'm very doubtful whether something will really come out of these talks or the Copenhagen meeting," said Mr Kitara. "What Tuvalu needs now is faster action."

Tuvalu, like most of the Pacific island states, is characterised by small, narrow and low-lying coral reef islands. It stands only two metres above sea level on average, with the maximum elevation of about five metres serving as a home for about 10,000 people.

Mr Kitara said people of his generation started to notice the impact of climate change more than a decade ago. The fishermen were working harder, but their catches were smaller and the reefs were dying.

More recently, they have encountered fiercer storms and waves eating away at their land. This has prompted people to move further inland and triggered arguments over ever-scarcer plots of land, Mr Kitara added.

The seriousness of Tuvalu's experiences was addressed during the engineering of the Kyoto Protocol in Japan in 1997 by its special envoy on climate change, Bikenibeu Paeniu. That year alone, Tuvalu was devastated by three tropical cyclones. Houses and whole villages were damaged and food crops were destroyed. In one incident an entire island community was left homeless and its vegetation so damaged that the island was uninhabitable, the envoy said in his speech.

"Ignoring our pleas will amount to nothing less than denial of our rights to exist as part of the global society and of the human race," said Mr Paeniu, while making a plea for a legally binding commitment to cut greenhouse gases from some industrialised countries.

The Kyoto Protocol was born shortly afterwards, but the fate of small island-states like Tuvalu has since gone from bad to worse.

Mr Kitara pointed to the recent tsunami which struck the neighbouring islands of Samoa, where waves up to four metres high hit the shores. "Tuvalu is very narrow," said Mr Kitara. "If we run to one side, it's the ocean. If we run to the other side, it's also the ocean. So if such high waves really come, what should we do? The best we can do is climb up the trees."

Mr Kitara has tried desperately to deliver his message in Bangkok. Every day he groups with other island representatives to update and share knowledge, which occasionally is passed on to the delegates.

Tuvalu's two representatives have to go through the G77 - a grouping of 77 developing nations, including China.

Malia Nobrega, a Hawaiian representative from the International Indigenous Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC), said it has not been easy for less powerful people to get their message across. "We are seen as observers," she said. But some governments have included indigenous representatives in their delegations. "The need for more practical action is obvious because of the already visible destruction in the Pacific caused by climate change," said Ms Nobrega.

Ian William Fry, one of the Tuvalu representatives, said they were working with NGOs and international groups to publicise the country's message through the media. Tuvalu wants the international community to recognise that the least developed countries and small island states are the most vulnerable to climate change.

At the Pacific Islands Forum in Cairns, Australia, in August, UN climate chief Yvo de Boer urged the islanders to demand action from larger nations "not only from a sense of responsibility, but because they understand the mutual benefits of cooperation".

First published in the Bangkok Post October 4 2009