Tuvalu to protect maritime boundaries despite rising seas

Tuvalu's finance minister
Seve Paeniu

In another first for the world, the island nation of Tuvalu has embarked on a national contingency plan to preserve and protect its statehood and sovereignty, in the event it becomes uninhabitable by 2050.

It’s not waiting for climate finance from loss and damage or any other climate finance mechanism to fund its plan that will likely see the Pacific island exist virtually and online for its people’s displaced by climate change and rising sea level.

Through the Rising Nation Initiative, Tuvalu’s Finance Minister Seve Paeniu is promoting the new plan that protects the island nation’s maritime boundaries through a Constitution amendment.

“We have developed a policy that will ensure our land and maritime zone are preserved, regardless of rising seas. We have started implementing that by making amendments to our Constitution. Incorporating in our Constitution the need to preserve our territorial and maritime zones – locking down our physical co-ordinates in the constitution regardless of the sea level rise, said Paeniu.

“The science is telling us that the current trends of emissions over the next 30 years or three decades by 2050, the majority of our land will be submerged. That would deem our land uninhabitable. So it’s only a matter of decades now, possibly in our lifetime. This is frightening.

“We have to be prepared. We have been coming to COP for 30 years now and it hasn’t stopped sea level rise. Whatever happens here at COP27 will not save Tuvalu. It’s already causing much damage in Tuvalu. The sea is rising and overwhelming parts of our land. So whatever adaptation options we implement, they may not be fast enough to protect our land from the rising seas, explained by Paeniu.

The statehood and territorial integrity bill will go before Parliament month, amongst other constitutional amendment bill.

“Any amendments to the Constitution will require two-third parliamentary vote. The Constitutional amendment process had begun several years ago. Preserving our territorial and maritime boundary are among others on the table for an amendment. We are undergoing major constitutional reforms and next month in Parliament, we are taking this amendment bill that will encompass the territorial integrity and territory next month, said Minister Paeniu.

He confirmed the people of Tuvalu have been consulted on government’s plan.

“It is very clear that no Tuvaluan wants to leave. The people want to remain at home, keep their identity and cultural heritage. As I’ve said earlier the science is telling us that Tuvalu will become uninhabitable by 2050 and if we are unable to get climate finance through loss and damage from this COP27 that is sufficiently large enough to protect our land from disappearing, Tuvalu will be no more and that is why we have to plan for those worst-case scenarios. Obviously we will need to go back to community to explain to them that this is a worst-case scenario plan in the event the sea is rising faster than us trying to protect our land, explained the Minister.

He said there are four pillars to the government initiative – that includes an application for the island nation to be declared a cultural and national heritage.

“We want to make Tuvalu a cultural heritage. We will be applying for the Protection of World Cultural and National Heritage through UNESCO to declare the whole nation of Tuvalu a cultural site and we want to use the heritage multi-media compilation to demonstrate to UNESCO that Tuvalu needs to be declared a cultural and national heritage.

“We also have a heritage project that will compile the uniqueness of Tuvalu’s culture and traditions in multimedia format and this will in the form of dances, songs, interviews so that our future generation can learn about their culture and tradition.

“We have a digital transformation pillar, which seeks to digitise all our records, our heritage, our identity in terms of citizenship. We will have an IT platform that will connect us wherever we will be in relocated to.

Since what Tuvalu is proposing is not covered by any international convention, the government will engage international law experts to develop its argument using various existing international laws and conventions.

“We realise that it overlaps across a number of international conventions like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Migration Convention, the UNESCO Cultural and National Heritage. There is no one international agreement that we can rely on that can recognise Tuvalu’s proposed new status. That is a challenge before us and we are now raising awareness and advocacy. We are also working with international legal experts to provide us legal opinions on what is the best options for us, said Minister Paeniu.

He made the remarks at a COP27 side event last week on statehood, sovereignty and climate change.

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