Signed Gilday: Tuvalu islands at risk of disappearing due to rising waters, citizens forced into exile?

Five states in the Pacific and Indian Oceans (Maldives, Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, Nauru and Kiribati) could disappear by 2100 due to sea level rise. The most threatened of these is the Tuvalu archipelago, whose entire population could be in Australia. .

The film left a lasting impression. In November 2021, Tuvalu's Foreign Minister Simon Gough refused to attend COP 26 in Scotland. Instead, he put his feet in the water and delivered a recorded speech on a coral reef: “In Tuvalu we are experiencing the reality of climate and sea level (…) rising (…) can't wait to talk when the sea is rising around us.”

The conclusion is clear. According to IPCC experts, Tuvalu will disappear within 80 years. Two of the nine islands that make up this state are already submerged. Tuvalu is the fourth smallest country on the planet with an area of ​​26 km2. The highest point of the territory is five meters above sea level and most of it is one or two meters above sea level. The disaster is already there, with saltwater seeping into the ground and severely affecting crops and gardens. So this former British colony, independent since 1978 but retaining King Charles III as sovereign, could become the first state to undergo a complete depopulation.

Welcome to the land of Australia

On March 26, the Australian government tabled an agreement in parliament aimed at protecting 11,000 Tuvaluans in the event of natural disasters, epidemics and “military occupation”. Each year, 280 of them are granted special visas to “live, work and study in Australia”, as well as access to health and education systems and financial support. Tuvalu, which negotiated the deal at length, has yet to ratify it. But the intention is clear, if the archipelago disappears, its population will find refuge in Australia, 5000 km to the west.

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A landless state?

There is a question, which calls international law into question. Can a state survive without its territory? In world history we are familiar with landless people like the Hebrew people who lived in the Diaspora for centuries before the creation of the State of Israel. There are other countries in the world that have one language, one culture, one history, but no state, this is the case of the Kurds.

But we don't know about a landless state. Of course, there were governments-in-exile, the Belgian government was returned to London during World War II. But there was still territory in Belgium occupied by a foreign power. However, Tuvalu will be submerged and will no longer have any landmass. The Tuvaluans believe their government-in-residence in Australia can retain sovereignty over 900,000 km2 of sea. But the definition of maritime domain is based on the presence of land, however small it may be. It is not certain that the international community will continue to recognize this “above” state. Especially because of the clash of geopolitical interests in the Pacific Ocean. While Tuvalu has turned its back on Australia, other countries, a few hundred kilometers neighboring Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, have reached agreements with China. Ironically, Tuvalu was one of the last 12 states to recognize Taiwan as the “Republic of China”, not Beijing. Most are as small as the Vatican, 44 hectares.

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Roman example

In terms of international law, the Vatican may be an example of the survival of the state of Tuvalu. The Lateran Pacts signed between the Holy See and Italy in 1929 re-established a papal state that had disappeared when Rome was conquered in 1870 and annexed by the Italian monarchy. In 1929, Italy recognized the independence of Vatican City within its walls. This gave additional territorial status to many Roman buildings, such as the Basilica of St. John Lateran. There are many more, churches, buildings, monasteries, university, Vatican radio headquarters etc…. We can imagine Australia giving a small portion of its territory to the Tuvalu government. But the deep, spiritual and historical ties that bind Italy and the Catholic Church are not of the same order as encouraging Australia's outstretched hand to Tuvalu. Can this “Vatican of the Pacific” maintain the unity of its people, its language and its culture even if Canberra gives them a few hectares?

A virtual Tuvalu

The leaders of the Archipelago were without illusions. They knew that the Tuvaluans, drowned and scattered across vast Australia, would struggle to maintain themselves as a community. Will their children, immersed in the English-speaking world, continue to speak a Polynesian language from the same family as that spoken in Tahiti or Hawaii? Sure, the exiles could build schools and cultural centers, but with what money? They can keep their offshore domain resources as they wish, and of course sell their web address to media around the world. In Belgium it's “.be” but in Tuvalu it's “.tv”. Do they still have the right to use it?

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And why not? Salvation will come precisely from a virtual state, which can evolve in what we call the metaverse. An interactive digital space with 3D models on the Internet. In this universe, the uprooted people of the Pacific can gather, discuss, and organize forms of living together. A fictional world governed by rules, laws, and standards established by a democratic vote and maintained government. We can also imagine recording thousands of images of Tuvalu Islands. Natural places, houses, inhabitants… so future generations can visit their lost country equipped with virtual reality glasses.

We can dream, but the best solution would be to follow IPCC recommendations to limit the rise in water levels. This will require serious commitment from countries that still use and abuse fossil fuels like coal for their industries. Leading the charge is… Australia!

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