Disability and climate change: a story of hope from Tuvalu

Posted November 11, 2021

Singiaki and his wife.

Sinkiagi Taulamati, 64, is a proud Tuvaluan carpenter who contributed to the construction of classroom facilities on the outer islands of Nukulaelae and Niutao. 

In 2018, when his health status deteriorated and his right leg was amputated, things changed dramatically for Sinkiagi and his family. As his profession required hard physical labor, Taulamati lost his job and is now struggling to make a living for his wife, two sons and grandchildren.

However, Sinkiagi’s disability is not the only factor that makes his life challenging.  

His house is situated in the coastal area of Tuvalu, the fourth-smallest country in the world with an average height of less than two meters above sea level. 

“My family has always been a victim of climate change: every year, we experience the tremendous impacts of king tides. The sudden rise of the sea level during king tides coupled with waves have often caused coastal inundation resulting in damages to home-yard gardening. I used to have a banana plantation close to my house, but constant coastal inundation has forced me to stop doing home-yard gardening”. 

During Tropical Cyclone Pam in 2015 and TC Tino in January 2020, Singiaki and his family were forced to move away from their house and stay with relatives or move to temporary shelters provided by the Government.

Singiaki's house is located right next to the beach.

The most severe impact of climate change for Singiaki and for many Tuvaluans has probably been coastal erosion. “I have been living here for years and I remember clearly that this plot of land, where my house is situated, was much bigger. Coastal erosion has eroded a significant part of my land”. Singiaki also told us that claims over land due to coastal erosion led to disputes and tension within the community. 

Most alarmingly, three islets of Funafuti, as well as more islets in the islands of Nukufetau and Nukulaelae have disappeared because of coastal erosion and extreme weather events.

“I believe these are the solid pieces of evidence that we should show to the world that climate change is real, and that Tuvalu is at risk of submerging”. 

Coastal erosion and sea-level rise could soon force Singiaki and his family to migrate. But migration is not an option for many Tuvaluans. 

As Singiaki said, “I love my country Tuvalu and my home island Funafuti wholeheartedly. I do not want to migrate or imagine myself being forced to migrate to other countries in the future because of climate change. Unfortunately, migration is also not a feasible adaptation measure for people with disabilities because the standard health immigration criteria of receiving countries may be discriminatory to people with disabilities”.

Tuvalu average height is 2 meters above sea level.

The joint IOM-UNDP Climate Security in the Pacific project, funded by the UN Peace Building Fund, is addressing climate-related security challenges such as sea-level rise and coastal erosion through an inclusive and bottom-up process to identify risks and design tailored intervention. 

Recognizing the initiative, Singiaki declared: “I am happy that the project is recognizing the importance of including vulnerable groups such as youth, women, and people with disabilities to be part of the process. These groups should always be included in any community consultations. We are the vulnerable groups, and our voices and perspectives should always be taken into consideration by the government and donor-funded projects”.

In Tuvalu, the project is conducting inclusive consultations with local communities to include them in the identification of priorities under a climate security approach. The consultations in Funafuti and in the island of Nui are part of the participatory process that is allowing the project to design and identify implementable effective resilience-building initiatives at community level, ensuring an inclusive approach to building resilience.

Community consultations in Funafuti organized by the Climate Security in the Pacific Project.

“I strongly recommend that the Climate Security in the Pacific Project continues to conduct inclusive climate security dialogue with communities in Tuvalu. The climate-related security issues that the project highlighted during the consultation were relevant as they truly represent the real-life challenges that people are facing. Those dialogues are necessary for  enabling the project to address the real climate security issues that people are facing and to implement pragmatic interventions based on the needs of vulnerable groups like us.”

To secure a sustainable future to people like Singiaki, the climate security agenda must be translated into concrete actions at the community level where the climate change impacts are already a reality.

Meanwhile, at COP26 in Glasgow, world leaders are deciding the future of the planet and pledging commitments to tackle climate change globally. The event must be the turning point to align climate goals on a global scale and build a consensus. It is the critical summit for global climate action and the occasion for world leaders to ensure the necessary financial and political support to vulnerable countries like Tuvalu. 

For more information:

Giulio Fabris, Communication and Advocacy Specialist - Climate Security in the Pacific Project, UNDP Pacific Office, Fiji; email: giulio.fabris@undp.org

Saamu Tui, National Project Coordinator - Climate Security in the Pacific Project, UNDP Pacific Office, Fiji; email: saamu.tui@undp.org