Before Simon Kofe, foreign minister of Tuvalu, addressed the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow while standing in knee-deep seawater, many people had never heard of the South Pacific island. Even fewer had seen, first-hand, the impact of climate change on low-lying small-island developing states such as his. 

Located midway between Hawaii and Australia, the tiny island archipelago is the fourth-smallest nation in the world by land mass and third-smallest by population (approximately 12,000 inhabitants). Global warming and melting ice caps have led to rising sea levels, creating widespread negative impacts. 

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The islands that make up Tuvalu are small and narrow. At its widest point, the capital, Funafuti, is only 600m across; while its highest elevation is only 4.5 metres above sea. Rising water levels have affected fishing and farming, the country’s two main economic activities. And when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, closing borders and freezing trade and tourism, it left Tuvalu adrift with seemingly no good options in sight.

“Our borders are completely shut,” says Tilou Kofe, CEO of the Tuvalu National Private Sector Organization. “We had to go hard and fast because we knew we didn’t have the healthcare infrastructure to be able to cope with a pandemic. Right from the beginning, the pandemic has seriously impacted a large group of Tuvaluans. Many rely on tourist dollars to make their weekly income.” 

Tuvalu’s public health response to the pandemic of battening down the hatches worked; by March 2022, the country was yet to register a confirmed Covid-19 case according to the World Health Organization. But for a small island nation dependent on links and trade to the outside world, cutting itself off sparked instant economic challenges. 

Isolated, Tuvalu turned to improving its internal trade. In October 2020 the Department  of Business, with support from the Enhanced Integrated Framework launched the Tau Maketi (your market) initiative to help vulnerable small businesses play a more active role in Tuvalu’s domestic market and make up for diminished foreign demand. 

Tau Maketi is a small but important step in alleviating the economic pain felt by many Tuvaluans. By bringing small businesses together to sell their locally made products, including handicrafts, paintings, clothing and cooked food, struggling local sellers are finding a domestic lifeline in this monthly initiative.

Although it popped up in the middle of the pandemic, work had been going on for many years to make Tuvalu’s producers more resilient, comfortable and competitive in regional and global markets. 

Land ahead

It is too early to say that Tuvalu has found safe passage through the pandemic-induced economic storm, but there are promising signs of a firmer footing ahead. The country needs investment in various sectors, including infrastructure, communications, health and education. The government is driving the agenda, charting the course and mobilising investments, including from international development partners. 

For example, the Ministry of Fisheries and Trade is matching funds from international partners to continue building the capacity of its staff. This self-reliance is already showing promise: Tuvalu designed its own government-led action plan to retain this critical technical ability. It also readily co-financed a targeted sustainability support  project, unlocking additional co-financing from the UN Development Programme to deliver a resource mobilisation plan and mainstream trade.  

Tuvalu’s idyllic white-sand beaches and the beautiful blue waters around it remain an under-exploited resource, and the country’s tourism industry is the smallest among the small island states in the South Pacific, according to the Pacific Business Monitor survey. With support from the Enhanced Integrated Framework, Tuvalu is preparing a sustainable tourism policy to highlight the country’s unique offerings, increase resilience, create jobs and diversify the economy. 

The project also includes a business incubator and strategic thinking around how to position Tuvalu’s exports in key international markets.  

The country’s environmental challenges were clear before the pandemic, but the pas few years have compounded the Tuvalu’s challenging economic position and highlighted the need for greater resilience.  

The tide appears to be turning, at least on the economic front. The Pacific Business Monitor found that 44% of businesses in Tuvalu reported a negative impact from Covid-19, but the number of those reporting a decline in business (32%) was the lowest since tracking began. Some 96% of respondents in Tuvalu said they were confident that their businesses would survive the pandemic.

There is little the people of Tuvalu can do on their own to reverse climate change beyond rolling up their trousers and advocating like their foreign minister to show the world why it needs to act quickly. As the seas rise around them, the people of Tuvalu remain optimistic that the world will work to meet the environmental pledges made at COP26 to keep them from going under. In the meantime, they are working to find new ways to be more resilient and competitive. 

David Daepp is regional portfolio manager at the United Nations Office for Project Services and trust fund manager for the Enhanced Integrated Framework: davidda@unops.org 

Darryl Ikbal is national coordinator and project manager at the Ministry of Fisheries and Trade, Tuvalu: dikbal@gov.tv