Shirley Atatagi, one our political advisors, is currently in Tuvalu for the King Tides Festival sends us another update from the Pacific. Read her previous blog post here
Today marks the first day of the Tuvalu King Tides festival. The festival slogan is a call to arms: “Tuvalu e! The tide is rising” King tides are a lunar phenomena that occurs once a year and leads to the highest tides in this part of the world. By ‘highest’ I mean higher-than-normal and that never used to be a big deal, except that ‘normal’ is evolving.
My Tuvaluan friends often talk to me about how high tides combined with strong winds at any time of the year are a big deal because the highest elevation point on Funafuti is less than 3 metres above mean sea level. Funafuti is both the capital of Tuvalu, and the name of the Atoll it stands on. According to Rev. Tafue Lusama, my friend and mentor who lives at one end of Funafuti, high tides combined with strong winds often means that they can’t travel anywhere because the waves will be breaking on the road. I could see evidence of this as we drove along the road today – to the side are pieces of coral, palm fronds and debris that’s been swept to the side to clear the road.
Today’s festival activities were plentiful, ranging from weaving (which I took to like a duck to water – must be in my Polynesian blood), games, food stalls, canoe races and coconut tree climbing competitions. But the mood was not all that festive for some of my friends and it felt somewhat unsettling to me. You see, between Thursday afternoon and Friday morning 3 people had passed away on the atoll. That’s not just 3 people, that is 3 out of the 4000 Funafuti residents.
Some of you reading this probably went to a school with 4000 students. Imagine if three of them had died on the same day.
To my friend Tafue, these 3 people were his neighbour, his uncle and the last was the wife of his colleague. But that’s not the unsettling part, and nor is the part about them needing to be buried straight away because the morgue isn’t used often - meaning family and friends from overseas wont be able to say their goodbyes. What shook me to the core was Tafue telling me that they all need to be buried before high tide (expected at 4pm) because otherwise the grave will fill up with water. Apparently, this has happened before but the details are too disturbing for me to relay in this blog. It reminds me of what someone told me once that in Micronesia (another Pacific island state) a local saying has developed in relation to climate change that ‘Not even the dead are safe’.
Tuvaluans claim that its not just the water that the wave bring onto the atoll that cause the flooding but apparently, water rises up from below when the sea level is high. This endangers crops and among other things cause flooding and spread of disease. But while the dead are now supposedly resting in peace, we can be sure that with king tides starting tonight they also lie in graves full of water. Tuvalu e! Talofa e.
Image: Children play in tide water in Tuvalu.