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Animation: Tina Tiller
Animation: Tina Tiller

PoliticsNovember 19, 2022

Tuvalu is sinking into the cloud

Animation: Tina Tiller
Animation: Tina Tiller

The small cluster of islands is sinking, and plans are now underway to recreate the country in the cloud before it disappears entirely.

For a safety-minded first-time traveller to Funafuti International Airport in Tuvalu, one of the more bizarre and harrowing sights from an airplane circling to land used to be watching tiny dots scurrying below, clearing the 1.5km runway of soccer balls, clothing, children and stray dogs.

But now Tuvalu is proposing to offer an even bleaker bird’s eye view of itself, by recreating it somewhere in the metaverse.  It’s bleak because Tuvalu is already preparing for the day when it won’t physically exist.

Tuvalu, which is located about 1200km directly north of Fiji, has again captured the world’s attention, this time at the climate change conference Cop27 in Egypt. Last year it produced a viral video of foreign affairs minister Simon Kofe speaking at a podium, flanked by national flags. By the end of the video it’s revealed that Kofe is standing knee-deep in the sea on what used to be land.

This time it’s a spine-chilling short film of the same minister speaking on an island that, he explains, will be one of the first spots in Tuvalu to vanish as a result of sea level rise.

“Since COP26 the world has not acted and so we in the Pacific have had to act … As our land disappears, we have no choice but to become the world’s first digital nation,” says Kofe in the video.

As the camera slowly zooms out, offering a wider shot, we realise the island has been recreated digitally.

“Our land, our ocean, our culture are the most precious assets of our people and to keep them safe from harm, no matter what happens in the physical world, we’ll move them to the cloud.” 

Simon Kofe, Tuvaluan minister for justice, communication and foreign affairs, addresses COP26

It’s an uncomfortable watch. You don’t know whether to marvel at the innovation or despair at the world’s potential failure to save a country that will be overwhelmed by the excesses of developed nations.

Tuvalu – which means a cluster of eight (valu) standing together (tu), referring to the country’s eight inhabited islands – only became an independent sovereign state in 1978, after being in Great Britain’s “sphere of influence” for more than 100 years.

Previously Tuvalu was known as Ellice Islands, named after the English MP for Coventry Edward Ellice, who was also a director in the New Zealand Company in the early 1800s.  New Zealanders will be familiar with the company’s colonisation work which resulted in establishing settlements in Wellington, Nelson, Whanganui and Dunedin, along with some involvement in settling New Plymouth and Christchurch.

Ellice was also the co-owner of sugar estates and was compensated about £35,000 in the 1830s for the liberation of over 300 slaves when the British abolished slavery.  Ellice died in 1863, the same year Peruvian slave ships kidnapped more than 400 Tuvaluans to work in South America.  Almost 80% of the population of the Tuvalu island of Nukulaelae were enslaved during those raids.

So Tuvalu knows only too well the devastating impact that so-called “civilised nations” from afar can have on the 26 square kilometres of land that is currently home for its 12,000 citizens. But this time it’s their very existence as a nation that’s being threatened.

It’s predicted that Tuvalu will become uninhabitable within 50-100 years. Some older generation Tuvaluans say they will go down with the land. 

But Tuvalu is taking a worst-case scenario approach and considering all options for the future.  While it hasn’t yet purchased land in Fiji to relocate some of the population as Kiribati has done, they’re exploring legal avenues to retain ownership of maritime zones and statehood under international law.  

Undoubtedly civil servants in Canberra and Wellington are also busily considering policy responses for dealing with potential climate change refugees from Tuvalu, as well as Tokelau, Kiribati and other low-lying Pacific islands.  New Zealand is already home to about 5,000 Tuvaluans.

A suggestion by former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd that Tuvaluans could be offered full Australian citizenship in exchange for their maritime and fisheries rights was dismissed by Tuvalu as “imperial thinking”.  Behind closed doors, Tuvaluans probably had a few less diplomatic ideas about where Rudd could put his suggestion.

One ironic wrinkle in the concept of an augmented and virtual reality digital nation, is that Tuvalu doesn’t own the country-code domain .tv as it was sold to Verisign (the company that runs .com) for USD$50m in 2000. 

Tuvalu could follow Niue’s lead and try to reclaim its domain.  Niue signed away the rights to .nu in 2003 for the promise of free unlimited internet access and wifi but is now wanting it returned. Currently in internet sector circles there’s an ongoing debate about the future of .tv if the country doesn’t exist – should .tv follow Tuvalu to its “watery grave”?

If Tuvalu has its way, nothing will happen to .tv as its nationhood will remain intact, with its culture and values enshrined in a digital twin housed somewhere in the cloud.

Keep going!