When the vulnerability of small island countries to climate change is reported in international media, it is often accompanied by images of houses and roads inundated with seawater, families standing among ruined homes, and children barefoot among wind-blown palm trees.
People are often portrayed as victims at the mercy of the elements. It can be an easy narrative to fall into — communicating climate change is complex and multifaceted. Yet it is far from the full picture. And it fails both the stories and the readers.
Addressing the impacts and causes of climate change must begin with strengthening nations' ability to make decisions about their own future. And this means investing in the very people who will help shape those decisions.
This can be a challenge in small island developing states. Take the example of Tuvalu, where coastal areas are highly vulnerable to sea-level rise, storm surges and flooding. Building resilience in these areas requires not only coastal engineers, but also marine biologists, geologists, oceanographers, meteorologists and so on. Yet the size of a country dictates the breadth of technical expertise it can offer, so it is not uncommon for a small island country's government to have to call upon international consultants to assess and present solutions. Unsurprisingly, these solutions are often not fully "owned" by communities.
Lifting up young Tuvaluans
This issue was very much in our thoughts when we, with the Government of Tuvalu, began co-developing a proposal for the Green Climate Fund, focused on coastal adaptation.
Both the Government and project team recognized that, for transformational change to take place, there was a clear need to focus on building a pipeline of young Tuvaluans, ready to lead their country in addressing the challenges ahead.
One of the components of the Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project is to fund up to six students to study a discipline relevant for coastal resilience abroad at a specialist university.
The scholarship is not just a personal investment for a talented young person. The seven-year duration of the project allows the scholarship recipients to return home and work on the project directly. This means their skills and knowledge are directly fed back into the work being done. It also lays the foundation for some of those same students to move on to a master's degree to become an expert in the topic, building the knowledge capital of their nation.
The Government of Tuvalu recently announced two awardees for the 2018 scholarship programme, including 19-year-old Tanu Sumeo. Tanu has set her sights high. Asked what she wants to do after finishing her studies, she replied, "I want to be a permanent secretary (high-level civil servant)."
With her recent acceptance to the University of South Australia to study geospatial science, she’s well on her way. Bright young women like Tanu are going to be among the technical experts and the decision-makers Tuvalu needs to protect its atolls and communities from the effects of climate change and sea level rise.
Looking to the future
Tuvalu may be a least developed country with considerable development challenges, including a small and fragile economy, geographical vulnerabilities and financial and technical barriers.
Yet it is also a country determined to develop and implement its own solutions to address the impacts of climate change, including building the capacity of its young population to take charge of their future.
This article was originally published in the Fiji Times.