We Aren’t Celebrating The Fact We’re Drowning

2 March 2010

Shirley Atatagi is one of our political advisors based in the Pacific. She's currently in Tuvalu for the King Tides Festival. In this blog post she explains Tuvalu's vulnerability to climate change impacts and why Tuvaluans celebrate the festival.

Shirley Atatagi is one of our political advisors based in the Pacific. She’s currently in Tuvalu for the King Tides Festival. In this blog post she explains Tuvalu’s vulnerability to climate change impacts and why Tuvaluans celebrate the festival.

Thursday, 25 February

Shirley Atatagi, Greenpeace political advisor in the PacificAs we were landing in Tuvalu today, I couldn’t help thinking about the tsunami that struck my country of Samoa a few months ago. I wasn’t in Samoa at the time but I’ve done my fair bit of crying over the stories about the destruction and the lives lost.

The many survivors were spared because they managed to get to higher ground – which is exactly the reason I was obsessing about this on the plane to Tuvalu.

You see, I have come to Tuvalu to witness the king tides and be part of the Tuvalu King Tides Festival. The tide is not expected to be as high as the waves that struck Samoa (the weather forecast predicts high tides to reach around 3.3 metres high this weekend) but Funafuti atoll (Tuvalu’s capital) is less than 3 metres (elevation) above mean sea level.

This means there is no higher ground to retreat to should a tsunami-like wave hit.

While waiting in the immigration queue at the airport, I made a mental note to survey the island and find the highest point in case of tsunami-like conditions. If you’re curious, I discovered that this is the government building. Distance from my accommodation? Approximately 20 metres.

For anyone who hasn’t been to Tuvalu, it feels like landing in a neighbourhood street – kids just standing on the side of the airstrip watching the plane, men fixing their bikes, old women weaving and talking under the shade of a tree. Such is life when the airstrip is the centre of everything.

The Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu lies midway between Australia and Hawaii.

The Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu lies midway between Australia and Hawaii.

Tuvaluans are Polynesians, which means I don’t feel out of place here. They are warm-hearted, loving people with a great sense of humor. Though, I’m not sure how much of that went into the large poster that greets you when you arrive at their little airport. It reads: “To be successful, practice safe sex!”. For a reproductive health campaign message it’s a little ambiguous. Hmm … a general life lesson perhaps? Or do Tuvaluans just like to play around with contradictions?

The idea of the festival is a contradiction that raises a few eyebrows. Why would they be celebrating king tides and the fact that they are drowning?

The organisers knew we’d be thinking this and addressed it at the opening ceremony. The unique Tuvaluan culture is being threatened by rising sea levels and other climate change impacts. One lady said that they know scientists have predicted they will be ‘wiped off the face of the map’, so the idea behind starting an annual festival is to celebrate the Tuvaluan culture and their resilience in these times of climatic changes. And to do it while they can in their own country.

Kids hang out on their "kaupapa", the outdoor sleeping platform favoured by Tuvaluan families, as very high tides inundate their neighbourhood.

You might be thinking that this is a smart, subtle way of campaigning on climate change. Of course it is! But then, on the other hand, looking on the bright side of any situation is a traditional way we island people deal with hardship. We may as well, because we can’t afford happy pills!

In the islands, we smile through everything. We celebrate everything (growing up in Samoa we had our fair share of public holidays that were announced whenever our rugby team won an overseas tournament). We have a tradition of oral history, so we need events and key moments locked into our memories so that we can recall these stories in the future.

In Greenpeace, we often talk about getting away from portraying these countries as victims because in spite of what is happening, they are showing resilience, and proving they are warriors who will not sit back and wait for the tides to claim their lives. Part of my being here is to capture that spirit and share it with our supporters. As Tuvalu celebrates its now-endangered culture, we all need to start thinking if we should be doing the same too.

Related link

» Videos: Listen to other personal experiences of climate change in the Pacific