A dot in the ocean

It is the best of times and the worst of times for the residents of one of the world's tiniest islands. Rod Savage reports

Come October 1, they will be dancing to the beat of several drums in the streets of Funafuti in Tuvalu.

One skin will be belting out optimism and vigour as the Tuvaluans celebrate their 24th anniversary of independence from Britain and their greatest spurt of economic growth and opportunity. The other will sound a warning that carries the tune of catastrophe and despair.

Tuvalu, a minuscule Micronesian island group about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, has only 11,000 people spread across 26 square kilometres (16 square miles, about two-thirds the size of London's Hyde Park). Their nation has no rivers or streams and its groundwater is not drinkable so inhabitants rely entirely on water catchments.

It has poor soil, no known mineral resources, no arable land, no crops, no pastures and no forests. Its only natural resources are fish and coconuts. Of the eight kilometres (five miles) of roads, none are sealed. It has no military, no television stations and one AM radio station.

One of the major sources of income for Tuvalu is the sale of stamps and coins, which are highly sought after by collectors. Its government relies heavily on foreign aid. It has a GDP of just $US11.6m, and its yearly budget for expenditure is $US6.1m. Compare this with the UK ($US1.36 trillion and $US510.8 billion) or nearby Vanuatu ($US245m and $US99.8m) and it is obvious that opportunities here for economic growth are limited.

But an opportunity did come along in 2000 and Tuvaluans did not miss the boat. The internet domain allocation for Tuvalu is .tv and is highly sought after by the telecommunications industry. So, in 2000, a US company signed a contract with the Tuvaluan government that allowed it to have the rights to lease .tv for 10 years, in exchange for $US50m. This will result in Tuvalu tripling its GDP to more than $US40 million within 10 years.

The government is already spending the extra income on much needed community facilities, such as a hospital and paved roads. Great reason, then, to celebrate this Independence Day. But all the digital dealings in the world can't mute the beat of the second drum - global warming.

Tuvalu's lowest point is zero metres above sea level and its highest point is just five metres (16 feet). Any change in sea levels, no matter how small, will have a dramatic effect on Tuvalu. Its government is not just concerned that it has lost the fight against global warming, it has begun drafting full-scale evacuation plans as it firmly believes its nation will sink. The government is also threatening to take legal action against western countries that created the global warming phenomenon.

Not everyone is convinced, however. Data compiled in Australia about the levels of the Pacific Ocean clearly show there has been no change in sea level. Indeed, the current El Nino phenomenon should result in sea levels falling 30cm around the island nation.

Tuvalu's prime minister, Koloa Talake, is having none of it, claiming recently that "flooding is already coming right into the middle of the islands, destroying food crops and trees which were there when I was born 60 years ago".

"These things are gone, somebody has taken them and global warming is the culprit," he said.

Instead of .tv, perhaps Tuvalu should try .sos The CIA World Factbook:www.cia.govciapublicationsfactbookgeostvTuvalu Online: www.tuvaluislands.comTuvalu's ISP: www.tuvalu.tvEl Nino:www.elnino.noaa.gov

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