'Timeless Tuvalu' is the country's branding to the world, or at least to the trickle of visitors that arrive every year to the tiny country of 10,000 people. It does indeed feel timeless as I walk the stretch of Fongafale (the main island, on which the capital is located). As I meander the streets in search of adventure, I find small batches of women fanning themselves in a maeba (open air raised huts), hands dripping crimson from the blood pudding they are preparing. We share a plate of taro chips and lie on the mats squinting in the sun.
Down the road, kids and youths play ping pong on makeshift tables, one of which is a freezer top divided with a wooden plank. A teenager with a blonde-tipped mohawk and slouching pants that reveal 'Kivin Calein' on the elastic flashes me a smile. A little further along, a mother and daughter are sorting shells to make necklaces to be sold in the handicrafts centre. Out on the open air runway at Funafuti's International Airport, mothers and babies enjoy the twighlight, sharing the strip with teams of volleyballers.
Yet despite the timeless feel of Tuvalu, things are changing.
For one, urbanisation (migration from the outer islands to Fongafale) is increasing, putting ever-higher pressure on water, land and the small formal sector to create jobs. Second, the environment is shifting. Big signs advertising climate change projects adorn fences and houses. Everyone on the island knows that climate change is the phrase which explains the stronger king tides, the salinated groundwater and the throng of journalists, politicians and aid workers that often spill out onto the tarmac at Funafuti airport.
This combination of increasing urbanisation coupled with environmental change risks pushing many Tuvaluans into poverty or hardship, or even displacement.
While most adaptation strategies in Tuvalu continue to focus on structural adaptation by building climate-resilient infrastructure, constructing seawalls and planting mangroves, there has been little discussion of how migration can be an important adaptation strategy to the impact of climate change.
A three-year project in which I am involved, Pacific Climate Change and Mobility, funded the EU and implemented by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, seeks to broaden Pacific countries' understanding of migration as an adaptation strategy, and to strengthen governments' ability to design policies which harness the positive aspects of voluntary migration while mitigating the risks of forced migration.
There is evidence to suggest that migration offers important opportunities for enhancing the security of Pacific island communities:
- Remittance provision: remittances are a significant source of income and can help meet basic needs when natural resource-based livelihoods are less productive (whether due to environmental change or natural disasters).
- Skills, knowledge and technology transfer: the periodic or permanent return of migrants can move new social capital into homeland communities by increasing the transfer of ideas, innovations, knowledge, information and skills. For example, returning migrants can improve financial literacy or increase understanding of climate change adaptation responses elsewhere.
- Reduced pressure on resources at origin: migration can act as a 'pressure release valve' reducing demand on resources in regions of migrant origin, particularly where these may be compromised by both environmental degradation and increasing population pressure.
Migration has long been a common strategy used by Pacific islanders to spread and reduce environmental and economic risks. This timeless strategy may be as important for climate change as it has been for previous environmental and social changes.
Photo by Flickr user Bart Hanlon.