The tiny Pacific island of Tuvalu is in danger of disappearing into the ocean, but its people have a plan – a new digital home for future generations

By Saphora Smith and Olly Box 

They knew we were coming. As we flew on one of the thrice-weekly flights to the tiny Pacific island state of Tuvalu, a construction worker sitting near us on the small propeller plane said he had been told journalists were due to arrive.

News had spread fast in this nation of some 10,000 people, which is among the least visited countries on Earth and which reopened its borders not long before our recent visit.

From the window of the approaching plane the country’s main island resembles a boomerang flung into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. At points it is impossibly narrow, simultaneously buffeted by the force of the ocean on one side and massaged by the calm waters of the lagoon on the other, sculpting the land in real time.

It’s a mesmerising sight that would leave any honeymoon travel agent salivating.

This small island or ‘big ocean’ state has always been at the mercy of the Pacific, but as Earth warms it is increasingly under assault from rising sea levels, intensifying storms and the acidification of its important maritime zones.

UN secretary-general António Guterres has warned that Tuvalu ‘faces an existential threat’ from sea-level rise.

While scientists debate the prognosis, Tuvaluans say the country is changing before their eyes, and with headline-grabbing reports that low-lying coral islands like those found in Tuvalu could become uninhabitable by the middle of the century due to rising sea levels, its leaders have a clear message: act now or risk losing Tuvalu.

‘We don’t have the luxury of time,’ Tuvalu’s young foreign minister Simon Kofe told us from the main settlement in this Commonwealth nation, situated halfway between Australia and Hawaii. ‘That window of opportunity is closing very quickly.’

In a worst-case scenario in which Tuvaluans have to abandon their land, the country’s leaders are working to ensure Tuvalu is still recognised as a sovereign nation. They also have plans to become the world’s first digitised nation in the metaverse, so that their land survives – even if only in a three-dimensional virtual world.

While it may seem far-fetched, the government has already replicated its smallest islet in the metaverse, from which Kofe addressed the United Nations during the Cop27 climate summit in Egypt last November.

And it says it has three-dimensional maps of the rest of Tuvalu’s territory, made with the help of light detection and ranging (lidar) technology.

Most of the nine inhabited islands in Tuvalu are atolls (an atoll is a ring of coral surrounding a lagoon) – considered to be among the places most vulnerable to climate change due to low elevation. The country is currently an average of only half a metre above the reach of high tides.

Mounted on mopeds, as most road-goers are on the main island – there is no culture of walking here – we are often only a few metres from the ocean. The lagoon shoreline is full of life, from the familiar school uniforms drying on washing lines to the less-so feast-ready pigs being slaughtered and disembowelled. Its waters attract many paddling locals escaping the heat, despite being polluted with human waste.

Scientists disagree as to the severity of the threat to Tuvalu. Some have warned that without adaptation most atolls will become uninhabitable within decades as sea levels rise and floods worsen, damaging infrastructure and contaminating underground freshwater supplies.

Nearly all of Tuvalu’s infrastructure is on low land near the sea. But other analysts point out that there are atolls, including Tuvalu’s main atoll, Funafuti, where the population already mostly relies on rainwater, meaning contaminated groundwater does not necessarily result in migration.

Meanwhile, some scientists have found that Tuvalu’s territory is a shifting mosaic and that its overall landmass increased as sea levels rose from the 1970s to the 2010s.

This scientific debate, however, offers little solace to Tuvaluans who say they have watched the sea encroach on their homes. On the bustling Funafuti, where some 60 per cent of the population live, locals described how graves have been washed out to sea, Second World War military installations that were once on land now stand several feet in water, and how during the highest tides seawater can bubble up through the coral into people’s homes.

The narrowness of the main island, which has three parallel roads in the centre that merge into one toward the ends, means many houses are within spitting distance of the sea. This proximity to the water is frightening when you consider the possibility of tropical cyclones and tsunamis.

There is no high ground to which the population can retreat, the only hill being a huge pile of rubbish at one end of the island.

In 2015, Cyclone Pam displaced 45 per cent of the population. Scientists say climate change has increased the occurrence of the most intense and destructive storms. One of the displaced was Lina Peleti, a 54-year-old grandmother who lives just metres from the lagoon and makes a trifle that could rival those made in the Home Counties.

After reminiscing about an earlier life working in a care home and a chocolate factory in the north of England, she told us about how Cyclone Pam had flooded her house with ankle-deep water and ripped off its corrugated roof as her children and grandchildren watched from below.

‘We were waiting [to see] whether it was going to come down on to our house or somewhere else,’ she said, surrounded by sleeping children, who napped in the mid-afternoon heat in the family’s temporary home, still being used nearly a decade after the disaster. ‘The wind was very strong and the trees were swaying to and fro, it was really scary.’

Some say climate change is also impacting livelihoods in this isolated society. Fisherman Solsene Penitusi, who is also the owner of one of only three guesthouses obviously up and running on the main island, lamented that the number and size of the fish close to the shore has declined over the years. ‘Climate change is giving us a hard time,’ he said from his boat, Lucky Woman, on the shores of Funafuti’s lagoon.

Global warming has damaged corals, meaning fish have less to eat, Tuvalu’s Fisheries Department told us. Spikes in the number of cases of ciguatera fish poisoning in the population have also been recorded in the wake of cyclones, which disturb reefs, it added.

The average global temperature is rising, increasing by more than 1C since the late 1800s. If heating persists, the lives of Tuvalu’s fishermen are expected to get harder.

Scientists project, for example, that some tuna species will move eastwards if temperatures rise. If they move outside Tuvalu’s sovereign waters, it will deal a significant blow to its revenue as fishing licences make up around half of the country’s GDP.

Perhaps for these reasons, fresh fish is not ubiquitous here, with only one café offering it on the menu during our stay and no sign of it at the rank-smelling, heat-battered supermarket. Cadbury’s Dairy Milk is easier to come by, while fruit and vegetables are also scarce because the groundwater is too salty for them to grow easily.

Penitusi, who has written songs warning Tuvalu to prepare for climate change, said he is readying himself to leave. The 63-year-old, who has lost one son to the ocean in a fishing accident, likened Tuvalu to a boat: if the vessel is about to sink and there is an island nearby, it’s clear what you need to do, he said.

‘We must go and shelter in that place instead of going down together with the boat,’ he added. ‘That is the plan that I’m keeping in my mind.’

The challenging elements of life are eased by the population’s friendliness. This is a society where locals decorate visitors with shell necklaces to bid them farewell and where journalists can knock on the doors of government departments and ask questions without encountering gatekeepers. But that is not to say the government is politically naive.

Faced with warnings that some of the islands could become uninhabitable, it’s drumming up international support for a declaration that would guarantee Tuvalu’s statehood beyond the habitable lifetime of its islands. The move could upend international law under which territory is a basic requirement of statehood.

Tuvalu Foreign Minister Simon Kofe. Photo: Ministry of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs, Tuvalu Government

Foreign minister Kofe told us that without a state, Tuvaluans stand to lose their rights as citizens, as well as sovereign assets, like their maritime zones and their internet domain name ‘.tv’, which currently bring in revenue.

Tuvalu is also exploring how to establish a digital nation that the government says could enable everything from voting to cabinet meetings to happen online. Part of this vision is creating a copy of Tuvalu’s physical territory in the metaverse that can also act as a repository for its culture, customs and traditions.

‘Whatever experience you would have in Tuvalu right now in terms of what you see, what you hear, all that can be recreated in the metaverse,’ Kofe said. ‘You can walk around and see the buildings, the beaches, the water.

‘Obviously you won’t feel it physically,’ he conceded lightheartedly.

Nevertheless, the virtual Tuvalu is likely to be visited by more people than its physical counterpart, which is mind-bendingly remote and feels like a tropical snow globe, buzzing with activity unconnected to the outside world. The only tourists we encountered were those in the final stages of visiting every country in the world. To attract visitors, leaders plan, for example, to allow people to get married in the digital Tuvalu. ‘Anyone in the world can do that without setting foot in Tuvalu,’ Kofe said.

Ideas such as the metaverse project, emanating from a government where most departments can be found in a building roughly the size of a medium-sized town hall, are drawing attention to Tuvalu on the international stage. At home, the ambitious metaverse plan has been met with curiosity and general enthusiasm, although many Tuvaluans acknowledged that they knew little about it or how it might work. Those visiting the country said they thought it was a stretch in a place where phone reception was down for days during their trip and very few places offer Wi-Fi.

For at least one Tuvaluan, the idea is a distraction from the crucial work that needs to be done to adapt the country to a changing climate and persuade foreign powers to cut emissions, fast. The former prime minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga, who was also the country’s first ambassador to the UN, told us he has yet to be convinced by the metaverse plan.

‘As far as I’m concerned, it is a defeatist idea,’ he said from his front porch, which looks out over Tuvalu’s only runway. When not being used to land jet planes, this transforms into the country’s only real recreational space – complete with hopscotch, rugby and parents promenading with prams. ‘If you can prove to me that a metaverse country can provide physical security to address land erosion in Tuvalu, the drought in Tuvalu, the damage to the coral… I would consider the possibility of supporting such [an] initiative.’

Sopoaga, a stately man with a neat moustache, said that instead of attempting to create a digital twin that could present security risks to the nation, Tuvalu should seek an international convention to protect the rights of those affected by climate change. ‘Don’t run away from the problems, face the problems, negotiate, talk with our friends,’ he said, addressing the government. ‘Collectively we can do much better than the metaverse.’

Responding to accusations that the metaverse was a defeatist policy, Kofe said a responsible government needed to ‘prepare for the worst’. There are also immediate benefits to Tuvalu’s broader plans to go digital, he said, including making public services more efficient. As for the potential risks of storing sensitive data in ‘the cloud’, Kofe said the government is exploring ways of keeping it safe. ‘We will not be putting it in the hands of one entity,’ he said.

The vast majority of the roughly two dozen Tuvaluans who spoke to us said they had faith in their leaders to do what’s right for the country. But there were conflicting opinions as to whether Tuvalu could really exist as a country if no one can live on its islands, which have been inhabited for centuries.

Kahifa William Manatu, an 18-year-old whose school playground practically extends the width of the island, with space only for a bus to pass, is among those who believe it can. ‘A country is more than just a place, it’s its people,’ he said, swatting away flies in the sweatbox that is his school’s design and technology classroom.

‘It can be seen through the traditions and customs, the way they speak, the way they do things like preparing their food. If Tuvalu were to sink or disappear and if Tuvaluans were to still hold on to their traditions and customs, their practices passed on from our ancestors, for me Tuvalu would still be alive but in our hearts and minds.’

Others are less sure. ‘If Tuvalu is gone and submerged, then there is no more Tuvalu, even though it appears digitally,’ said Pastor Alamatinga Lusama of the Tuvalu Christian Church. ‘There is no nation without a country, the body… if Tuvalu is gone, it’s gone.’

Pastor Lusama, whose house looks out over a partly submerged tank that he says is from the Second World War and used to stand above sea level, suggested that if Tuvaluans moved abroad they would soon become Fijians or Kiwis, depending on where they put down roots.

‘Although we still want to be called Tuvaluans… it’s very hard without a country,’ he said, from a pew inside his church. ‘So it’s better to do something to save Tuvalu, so that it will not disappear.’

The government is doing just that by working to adapt its shores to be able to cope with the impacts of rising seas, in a country where in the four decades to 2014 local sea levels rose at twice the global average. Tuvalu has already reclaimed land from the ocean, which is today the site of the Queen Elizabeth II Park, home to a slick conference centre where everything from Sunday church services to parliament is held.

Next door, the Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project, funded by the Tuvalu government and the Green Climate Fund, which is accountable to the UN, is continuing to dredge the sea floor to build up new land. Tuvalu also has a Long-Term Adaptation Plan – or ‘survival plan’ – which aims to reclaim around 1.4 square miles of land on Funafuti from the lagoon so that people can be relocated to safer ground, and key infrastructure such as Tuvalu’s only hospital and Funafuti’s secondary school can expand.

Tuvalu’s population has doubled since the Second World War, with economic and social challenges such as overcrowding making the country more vulnerable.

The new land would mean more green spaces for Tuvaluans to grow fruit and vegetables. Many here currently rely on produce grown in raised beds with the help of a diplomatic mission from Taiwan. The adaptation plan would also allow for the airstrip to be relocated, and redesigned so that it can be used to collect rainwater which can then be treated and piped to the population. Currently, many Tuvaluans rely on rainwater collected from their roofs and stored in tanks.

But in order to achieve this hugely ambitious project, Tuvalu will need funding. ‘I keep on dreaming that this long-term adaptation vision will be realised, maybe not during my lifetime but I hope [in] my children or grandchildren’s lifetime,’ says minister of finance Seve Paeniu.

Paeniu’s land runs down to a construction site of the Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project, which is extending the island into the sea – what Paeniu calls a pilot for the long-term plan.

From the gate to his property, children can be seen playing offshore on large sand bags that are the beginnings of new land, slipping and sliding and leaping into the sea.

‘I strongly feel that [the Long-Term Adaptation Plan] would be the only appropriate solution to saving Tuvalu and ensuring that our people and our culture [remain] intact and do not disappear from the face of the Earth,’ he said.

The country’s leaders are also developing a case for Tuvalu to become a Unesco World Heritage Site, increasing the stakes of losing the country for the rest of the world, and are in the process of amending the constitution to enshrine Tuvalu’s maritime coordinates regardless of sea-level rise. They are also lobbying the international community to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

Kofe has made headlines around the world for his eye-catching stunts at UN climate summits, including addressing Cop26 in Glasgow standing knee-deep in seawater off Tuvalu’s coast to draw attention to the threat of sea-level rise: ‘We are sinking, but so is everyone else,’ he said from the sea. He seems to have perfected the art of delivering a simple message that attracts global attention. While academics may disagree that Tuvalu is ‘sinking’, they agree that climate change is a threat to the country and action is needed to limit its impacts on this highly vulnerable nation.

There is frustration and increasing alarm in Tuvalu that high-emitting nations are not taking adequate action to limit global heating. Pacific Small Island Developing States, including Tuvalu, contribute less than 0.03 per cent of the world’s total greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the UN.

‘They are killing Tuvaluans,’ former prime minister Sopoaga said of countries that are prioritising economic growth over the climate. But he also has hope. ‘I just believe we as mankind, we can overcome this,’ he said, of global heating. ‘We cannot give up, for the sake of our children and grandchildren.’

Even if the international community does fail Tuvalu, many in this deeply religious country trust that God will not. Every day at 6.45pm, as darkness descends, bells ring out down the length of Funafuti and its population grinds to a halt to observe 15 minutes of prayer and reflection. The usual stream of mopeds stops on the street, boys playing ball on the airstrip sit in a circle on the ground, those caught between work and home stand still.

From across the island singing emanates from homes as families gather in worship. Locals say the same happens on the outer islands, despite the nation being spread over hundreds of thousands of square miles in the Pacific, with only infrequent ferries to connect the islands which in total make up just 10 square miles of land.

Her faith in God means Tineiafi Pedro, a teacher at Seventh-Day Adventist Primary School on Funafuti, is among those who are not afraid of the future. ‘Tuvalu will not sink, we’ll never sink,’ she told me. ‘If God has put us here, he has ways to secure us on these small islands.’

Others were brought to tears just thinking about the impact climate change might have, or the prospect of losing their homes. ‘You have to feel worried,’ said Sitaake Lopati, who is from the outer island of Niutao. ‘If this doesn’t happen during my time, then my children, my grandchildren, they’ll have a hard time, [they] won’t know where… to live.’

Whether they are afraid or not, and no matter where they find hope, all Tuvaluans who spoke to us were united in a desire for the land underneath their feet to survive.

If they lose Tuvalu people will put on a brave face, but inside, as they continue their lives, it will be like they have a ‘missing piece of their heart’, said Manatu, the student at Fetuvalu Secondary School.

They will never again be able to come back to see where they went to school, played with friends or got married: ‘They’d just have to look through pictures of how Tuvalu once looked. That is, for me, one of my biggest fears.