As the sun sets on the beautiful isles of Tuvalu, I sit and reflect with Jieni (name withheld), an unemployed Tuvaluan youth, on ways in which households and individuals are trying to improve the social, cultural and economic capital of their families, communities and societies, all while embracing and responding to the existential threat of sea level rise and coastal inundation.

Sea level rise
is one of the most severe impacts of climate change, with rising waters threatening to inundate small-island nations and coastal regions by the end of the century. The World Bank estimates that by 2040, sea level rise would lead to a more modest but still large loss of about 5.8 - 10 percent of Fogafale’s (Funafuti) land area and expose a further 10 - 11 percent of land area to occasional inundations.

“When Life Gives You Lemons, You Make Lemonades”

As we sat, perched on the deck of the new convention centre staring at the sun dip into the ocean and talk about life on the tiny atoll of Tuvalu, Jieni remarked that “when life gives you lemons, you make lemonades”.  Eager to know the meaning behind this, I quickly pulled out some photos I had captured earlier and showed them to her.

As she browsed through the pictures, her instant response was that “the rising sea level, beaches being swept away, and saltwater intrusion has become part of their everyday life”. I was instantly reminded of the evening recreational activities that took place during spring tide, which I experienced myself during the solutions safari

Evening sports during king tide near the Funafuti Airport Runaway. (Photo: UNDP/Mohseen Dean)

I was also intrigued by the fact that Jieni did not speak specifically to the images, but rather on the effects of seawater rise and intrusion. To counter the effects of sea level rise and high intense waves reaching their homes, the residents together with the Government at times, and with the help of some development and donor agencies have adopted various solutions.

Solutions for Climate Resiliency

The photo below shows of the rubbles and boulders found along the roads that run adjacent to the sea.

Rubbles provide some relief to the community from rising sea waves/tidal surges, towards the wharf end of the islet. (Photo: UNDP/Mohseen Dean)

Jieni explained that the rubble served its purpose and that “it protects them from rising seawater and the effects of the waves during cyclones and storms, which would otherwise ‘gulp’ the whole of the island one day”.

The next image (below) shows a house with a foundation made of natural materials such as stones, corals and sediments compacted together. 

Households using various forms of alternatives to protect their homes from the impacts of sea level rise and intrusion, located towards the ocean pub bar. (Photo: UNDP/Mohseen Dean)

Jieni explained that such forms of engineering methodologies can only be afforded by households who have enough labor and are financially capable as it requires dedication, strength, and resources to firstly compact a strong foundation. Houses are then built on piles or on wooden posts to elevate their heights from the ground, helping to protect from seawater rise, flooding and intrusion.

At other locations on Fogafale, some households were resorting to placing barricade like structures as walls that would form barrier to the rising seawaters.

Wall Barriers, near 3Ts wine and dine that is closed. (Photo: UNDP/Mohseen Dean)

In the next photo, Jieni shared how over the years the community has become very inventive and has survived many tests. “There is great energy and passion in our community to address climate related issues ourselves”, she said. Further probing revealed that apart from preventing loss of land and shorelines, these drums are used by households to tie their fishing boats, as well as for crabbing.

Protection of shoreline using repurposed drums, found towards the ocean pub bar. (Photo: UNDP/Mohseen Dean)

I also captured pictures of people resorting to nature-based solutions (below) to protect their beaches and shores from the pounding effects of tidal waves and heavy rains, which I shared with Jieni. She revealed that “such a form of nature-based solution is one of the most in-expensive methods to protect their beaches and shorelines as the plants can be locally sourced, grows invasively in abundance, and could be regenerated within a short span of time”. However, the drawback is that these plants are susceptible to droughts causing them to die (just like other plants), and as a result expose the land to wind and waves.

The creepers prevent loss of beaches and shorelines, found towards the wharf end of the islet. (Photo: UNDP/Mohseen Dean)

Development Needs the Grassroots to Succeed

During our expert interviews, our counterpart from the University of the South Pacific, Dr Morgan Wairiu revealed that some of the major developments on Pacific atolls to safeguard the community against the effects of Climate Change fall short due to limited consultation with the local communities during the initial planning processes. In-fact, it is often the case that barriers such as sea walls and fences that were built to protect the islands from coastal erosion and inundation by development agencies have become non-effective overtime. Such barriers then only aggravate the loss of coasts and shorelines making them more vulnerable than ever before.

As I wrap up my photo excursion with Jieni, I am reminded of the many proponents of development who argue that grassroot-level innovations may hold the key to global challenges. It has become clearer to me that it is citizens like Jieni who need to be included in developing solutions to ensure that they help those that are most affected by climate change in their daily lives.

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