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Explained: Why Tuvalu’s foreign minister gave COP26 speech knee-deep in the ocean

Rising sea levels also have legal implications for some of these island nations, including Tuvalu, as they could potentially lose their statehood if they sink.

Written by Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk | Vasco |
Updated: November 11, 2021 9:43:45 am
Tuvalu's Minister for Justice, Communication & Foreign Affairs Simon Kofe gives a COP26 statement while standing in the ocean in Funafuti, Tuvalu November 5, 2021. (Reuters)

The foreign minister of Tuvalu, a tiny Pacific island nation located halfway between Hawaii and Australia, delivered a powerful message at the United Nations COP26 climate summit. His speech was memorable not just because of what he said, but how he said it.

Standing knee-deep in sea water dressed in a suit and tie, Tuvalu’s top diplomat Simon Kofe warned that small Pacific island nations, like his, were even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. A video of his speech was aired at the climate conference in Glasgow on Tuesday.

“The statement juxtaposes the COP26 setting with the real-life situations faced in Tuvalu due to the impacts of climate change and sea level rise and highlights the bold action Tuvalu is taking to address the very pressing issues of human mobility under climate change,” Kofe said before his video message was aired.

Why did Kofe stand in the ocean to deliver his message?

By standing knee-deep in seawater, Kofe wanted to highlight how his low-lying Pacific island nation has been negatively impacted by climate change and face the threat of disappearing completely if sea levels continue to rise.

In his speech, he said that the islands of Tuvalu were considered “sacred”. “They were the home of our ancestors, they are the home of our people today and we want them to remain the home of our people into the future,” he explained.

Tuvalu’s Minister for Justice, Communication & Foreign Affairs Simon Kofe gives a COP26 statement while standing in the ocean in Funafuti, Tuvalu. (Reuters)

How has Tuvalu been impacted by climate change?

The island nation of Tuvalu, which is home to around 11,000 people, has witnessed sea levels rise by about 0.5 centimetres every year since 1993, according to a 2011 Australian government report. In fact, Kofe said the place he selected to film his video from was once a dry land. For this he blamed coastal erosion.

In case the situation worsens and the country is completely submerged due to climate change, the foreign minister said that Tuvalu was exploring legal ways to keep its ownership of its maritime zones and recognition as a state, Reuters reported.

“We’re actually imagining a worst-case scenario where we are forced to relocate or our lands are submerged,” he told Reuters.

According to Tuvalu’s tourism website, children are being taught about climate change from the age of six. They are learning about why they may need to migrate to other countries as they could be the last generation to grow up in Tuvalu.

“Its people are already in flight. More than 4,000 live in New Zealand, and the Tuvaluan government is planning the migration of the remaining 10,000,” the website states. “Scientists are predicting that by the end of this century the oceans could be one meter or more above their current levels. Coastal regions will be flooded and low-lying nations such as the tiny South Pacific country of Tuvalu could be submerged.”

In this Oct. 13, 2011, file photo, Funafuti, the main island of the nation state of Tuvalu, is seen from Royal New Zealand Air Force’s C-130 aircraft as it approaches at Funafuti, Tuvalu. (AP)

What about the rest of the Pacific island nations?

Tuvalu is not alone. The sea level in the western Pacific Ocean has been increasing at a rate 2–3 times the global average since 1990, according to World Bank data. Some of these states, including the Marshall Islands, may lose their status as a nation if sea levels continue to rise at this rate, a World Bank report stated.

The leaders of these Pacific island nations have been calling for immediate action and have demanded that the big polluters intensify their carbon cuts.

Despite being most at risk due to climate change, these island nations lacked representation at the climate conference in Glasgow. Ahead of the conference, around one-third of these nations were unable to send representatives to the summit due to Covid restrictions, The Guardian reported.

But the representatives of island nations that were able to make it for the conference called for urgent intervention. “Our islands are slowly being eaten by the sea, one by one. If we do not reverse this trend, the Maldives will cease to exist by the end of the century,” Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih said, according to CNBC.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, warned that global warming “is a death sentence for the people of Antigua and Barbuda, for the people of the Maldives, for the people of the Dominica and Fiji, for the people of Kenya and Mozambique, and yes, for the people of Samoa and Barbados.”

Does an island lose its status as a nation if it sinks?

Rising sea levels also have legal implications for some of these island nations as they could potentially lose their statehood if they sink. Under international law, laid down in the Montevideo convention, a state is defined in accordance with four main criteria: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.

Amidst rising sea levels, droughts and serious water shortages, residents of small nations are increasingly choosing to move across borders for their survival. If this continues, some of these island nations could be left without a permanent population.

In 2015, the low-lying Republic of Kiribati said that the effects of climate change were threatening its existence as a nation. If a country were to disappear, or in this case sink, it is not clear whether it would be able to retain its sovereignty. But the UN suggests that it is unlikely for a state to cease to exist under what it calls the “presumption of continuity”.

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