Select Page

Ms. Lockwood is the ideas editor at the website Rest of World and the author of the forthcoming book “1,001 Voices on Climate Change,” from which this essay is adapted.

Devi Lockwood spent five years traveling the globe talking to people about changes they were seeing to their local water and climates. Here are some of the stories she heard.

A little more than 10,000 people live in Tuvalu. Generations ago, Polynesians navigated here by the stars, calling the sprinkles of land in the vast blue of the South Pacific home. With 10 square miles of total area, less than five miles of roads and only one hospital on the main island, Tuvalu is the fourth-smallest countryin the world. Disney World is four times larger in area. Tuvalu’s capital city, Funafuti, sits about 585 miles south of the Equator.

By some estimates, Tuvaluans will be forced, by water scarcity and rising sea levels, to migrate elsewhere in the next 50 years. This mass exodus is already happening. Large Tuvaluan outposts exist in Fiji and New Zealand.

I came to Tuvalu with a question: What does it mean for a whole nation to become uninhabitable in my lifetime?

Tauala Katea, the director of Tuvalu’s meteorological service, sat in his office near the airport and tilted a monitor to show me an image of a recent flood when water bubbled up under a field by the runway. “This is what climate change looks like,” he told me.

“In 2000, Tuvaluans living in the outer islands noticed that their taro and pulaka crops were suffering,” he said. “The root crops seemed rotten and the size was getting smaller and smaller.”

Those two starchy staples of Tuvaluan cuisine are grown in pits dug underground. This crop failure was the first indication that something was wrong. The culprit was found to be saltwater intrusion linked to sea level rise.

The last 20 years have marked a period of significant change in the Tuvaluan way of life. Thatched roofs and freshwater wells are things of the past. The freshwater lens underneath the island, a layer that floats above denser seawater, has become salty and contaminated. Each home now has a water tank attached to a corrugated iron roof by a gutter. This rainwater is boiled for drinking and also used to wash clothes and dishes and for bathing.

Imported food is now commonplace. During my month in Tuvalu (from December 2014 to January 2015), I learned what climate change tastes like: imported rice, tinned corned beef, a handful of imported carrots and apples, the occasional local papaya, bananas and many creative uses for custard powder.