That sinking feeling


The Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions may have been partially salvaged in Bonn last week, but for one of the world's smallest countries it could prove too little, too late.

The tiny South Pacific nation of Tuvalu is just four metres above sea level at its highest point, and already it has begun to disappear beneath the waves.

Environmentalists fear the country may be lost for ever within decades, and farmers are already feeling the effects of coastal erosion, rising salinity and the rising ocean

Paani Laupepa, an acting assistant secretary at the ministry of natural resources and environment, recently commented: "The islands are full of holes and sea water is coming through these, flooding areas that weren't normally flooded 10 or 15 years ago."

The nation's leaders are so fearful of the rising sea levels swamping Tuvalu's 11,000 citizens that they are considering plans to move their nation.

Earlier this month, they approached the Australian government in an effort to open negotiations on a contingency plan that would see all Tuvaluans move to Australia should the nation suffer a watery end. They have approached New Zealand with a similar request.

Talks are also under way on the purchase of a massive tract of land in Fiji, where the Tuvaluan government might alternatively move its nation should the Pacific swallow up the nine small coral islands that make up Tuvalu.

The Australians have told the Tuvaluans that if they want to come and live in Australia, they will have to apply through the immigration system like everybody else. The New Zealand authorities have been more receptive, but have stopped short of making any promises.

Situated about 4,000 kilometres east of Cape York - the northernmost point of Australia - and 1,000 kilometres north of Fiji, Tuvalu has little or no industry. It boasts no exports, and tourists seldom visit. But the country is nothing if not resourceful, making an estimated seven million Australian dollars a year from selling tuna-fishing licences. Its main income, though, comes from a more high-tech source.

In 1996, an American company approached the island nation, saying it wanted to buy the rights to its Internet domain name, ".tv". The company offered $5,000. But following a suggestion by the secretary of Koloa Talake, a member of the Tuvaluan parliament, who had read a little about the Internet, the island authorities decided to play hardball and ask for $10,000. They heard nothing more from the Americans.

But then a rival Internet outfit, Idealab, from California, flew into town promising millions for the catchy ".tv" address. By 1999, a deal had been struck, with Tuvaluans securing a contract worth 100 million Australian dollars over 12-and-a-half years for surrendering the ".tv" address.

Idealab now sells millions of ".tv" domain names every year, some for as much as 100,000 Australian dollars. "It's like money falling from the clouds above," said Talake recently. As a nation,

But all of that prosperity, in a corner of the world that nobody visits, may be lost for good within 30 to 40 years if the world gets any warmer, when not even its millions or domain name will be enough to save it.