Bremen renewable, Generally, international, interview, Social justice, Uncategorized

The tides are flooding our roads, our houses – everything.

Teresa Lifuka-Drecala in conversation with denkhausbremen about the rising sea level threatening her island state, the difficult decision of people from Tuvalu to leave their home country and the need to support vulnerable communities in the face of climate change. Teresa Lifuka-Drecala is a lawyer and an experienced Director and Board Member for various organizations, including the Tuvalu Association of NGOs and the Tuvalu National Youth Council. She is committed to promoting sustainable development in Tuvalu.

denkhausbremen: What does climate justice mean to you? 

Teresa Lifuka: For me, climate justice is a human centered approach. It’s about people in Tuvalu or in any country receiving the aid and assistance that they genuinely need, especially in the face of climate change. Equity is essential – the assistance needs to reach the grassroots level, the communities, which is the level that I work with. I think about climate justice as taking our concerns to court – which is very important – but also as money and funds to help grassroots communities adapt to the impacts of climate change.

As one of the heavily impacted nations, Tuvalu’s needs are very great. So, how about the polluter pays principle? Tuvalu as a nation is far from being a big polluter, yet we are the ones that are heavily affected, even threatened in our existence as a country. Not only Tuvalu, but other island nations around the world as well.

What is the kind of assistance that you have in mind? 

On the global level, we have the human rights framework, for example, including our rights to health, life, water, housing. In the negotiations within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), we have discussions about mechanisms around climate adaptation and loss and damage. But these are concerns that countries like Tuvalu have been bringing forth to the UNFCCC since 1993 – and only now we are beginning to truly acknowledge them. Will it take another 30 years to finally implement this?

I appreciate that our governments are working together with others to push this at the global level and to hold other countries accountable. But for me personally, when I think about climate justice, I’m breaking it down to the grassroots level. I am thinking of assistance that is genuine and clearly recognizes our vulnerability. Because when you recognize the vulnerability of a nation or a community, only then you will be able to understand their needs.

We have donors and financial aid coming in, but they all have their set of criteria that we must follow – for me, that’s not genuine at all. How do they really know what the people in Tuvalu need? The reality is, most of the projects are for the people, but they’re not owned by the people. Instead of spending money in Tuvalu without any sustainability, we need equitable access to resources, with a focus on local empowerment.

Rising sea levels are certainly the most discussed when it comes to the impacts of climate change that Pacific Islands are facing. Are there any other impacts that are affecting your communities?

As physical impacts of climate change, we have sea level rise and king tides, extreme king tides. These tides are flooding our roads, our buildings, our assets – everything. The rising sea level brings debris from the sea onto the road. There are frequent roadblocks, preventing children from getting to school on time. People at the ends of the islands, where this mostly happens, are unable to reach work on time. In general, the consequences of climate change in Tuvalu pose a particular challenge for vulnerable populations, especially the elderly, children, and people with disabilities.

With rising sea levels and coastal erosion, the already limited land becomes even scarcer – especially in the capital Funafuti, where most of our population resides. We are losing land, we’ve already lost whole islands during some cyclones. As a small nation, looking for space, we are becoming ever more restricted and living in crowded communities.

We have the seabreeze, allowing our valuables to rust and to deteriorate extremely fast as compared to if it were kept in a safe location. Not to mention saltwater intrusion, which also is a real problem for us, the salinity in our soil is very high. We have vegetables that are very salty, which also affects our health. Producing vegetables that are edible for you and your family requires a lot of effort in tilling the land.

So, besides extreme weather events like cyclones or droughts and the corresponding risks, this is also about food security and water security. How are we able to sustain our supply in Tuvalu, not only for the future generation, but even for the people living here today?

Scientists predicted that Tuvalu will be uninhabitable by 2050… 

Yes, I will always emphasize this. It is the reality – we will be uninhabitable by 2050. And we don’t want to be uninhabitable! This is our home, this is where we want to live. I mean, who wants to lose their home?

Besides the physical and health effects of climate change, we also have psychological impacts. We in the Pacific don’t refer to them in those terms, but when you dig deeper into conversation in the local language, these are really issues and concerns. There is the fear that we will lose our land, lose our cultural heritage. That we don’t have enough to eat, not enough drinking water. This causes tension and friction in families – the fear is real.

In 2023, Tuvalu and Australia signed an agreement enabling citizens from Tuvalu to migrate to Australia in the future. The ‘Falepili treaty’ has been called ‘groundbreaking’ as it is the world’s first climate resettlement agreement. What are the discussions about that in Tuvalu? 

Well, it might have been groundbreaking, but it also caused a lot of heartbreaks, I can say that. As I highlighted before, many of us would not want to move. I would love to stay in my country forever and have my kids and their kids live in this nation. But the reality is that Tuvalu will be uninhabitable by 2050 and there are measures that need to be undertaken.

Nevertheless, when this agreement was first announced, I was quite upset. Because when such treaties are endorsed and signed by governments, usually there is a national consultation prior to this. But there was no consultation and no transparency then. I was worried about the terms of security in this treaty, I felt we were giving away too much to Australia. But if this is an avenue for migration in the face of climate change that our leaders are building on to ensure that we have a future, then I commend them for that.

I’m happy to note that our new government is addressing the concerns Tuvaluans have about the treaty in a list of 21 priorities, going back to the discussions and trying to resolve them. Once that is done, hopefully we may have consultations on the matter, and they may provide us with more feedback.

It’s hard to imagine an entire – albeit small – nation leaving their homes and moving to another country. 

It is difficult. I fear for what it may do to our identity as Tuvaluans, our sovereignty, culture and heritage. As great as the Australian initiatives may have been in Tuvalu in terms of aid and assistance – still, this is a country that has not acknowledged the rights of their own indigenous people. If they cannot acknowledge their own indigenous people, then how can we be sure they would recognize us outsiders coming in? So, for me as an indigenous person, this is quite a risk. I trust this is something the new government is working on in the final details of the treaty.

You said that everyone wants to stay – is there a difference between younger and older people?

There’s a bit of both. You have young people that don’t want to leave, then you have old ones that have already left. And you can’t really blame them, because most of the decisions of why people migrate are because of better work opportunities, better access to health services, better benefits for their children. When it comes to our children, that’s something we just cannot argue with – to give them the best life that we could possibly hope for. For most Tuvaluans that I have talked to, those are the common reasons. It’s always around family, giving them a better life.

What could politicians in Bremen contribute to climate justice?

I have a very community minded approach in the sense that before you help others, it would be good to help your backyard and to have sustainable policies in place, without use of coal or other fossil fuels. Support your vulnerable and marginalised communities that are neglected and strongly affected by climate change!

Beyond fostering international cooperation and supporting the call for climate justice that comes from the Pacific and from indigenous groups, it’s also about having practical initiatives in your own country to address proper healthcare, proper sanitation, access to water and food for your vulnerable communities. I’m a firm believer in engaging NGOs and other stakeholders because fighting climate change is not just the responsibility of governments, but it’s everyone’s responsibility.