Drowning Islands: A Visual Account of the Effects of Climate Change

Tuvalu, one of the smallest countries on the planet, is also predicted to be one of the first to disappear under the rising sea. Brook Meakins, an attorney who advocates for those in climate-threatened locations, recently visited Tuvalu and shares the story of this fragile and beautiful chain of islands through her photos.

Top image: Morning until night, life in Tuvalu happens on the beach. With a total landmass of 26 square kilometers, 24 of which are coastal, most activities occur within a stone’s throw of the sea.

Children in Tuvalu have a comfort and familiarity with the water, undoubtedly connected with the omnipresent sea in a way that only those raised on an atoll seem to understand.

This photo, taken from the sand on one side of the island of Funafuti, looks to the sea at the other side of the island. Coastal vulnerability is exacerbated for those in Tuvalu who live near the burrow pits, like the pits shown here. A remnant of the United State military presence during WWII, burrow pits are unsightly, unhealthy, and particularly dangerous during storm surges or prolonged rains. Lacking spare land, Tuvalu is unable to fill the pits.

The lagoon in Funafuti is a national playground and an absolutely breathtaking site. It is 14 kilometers wide and 18 kilometers long, making it the most prominent of Funafuti’s natural sites.

Fish are plentiful in Tuvaluan waters, and fishing (whether on commercial boats or for domestic trade) is a very common source of income. Increasing levels of “toxic fish” concerns some in Tuvalu, although not all. I witnessed children and their parents eating raw reef fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

This picture shows the realities of Tuvaluan life, both literally and figuratively. Commercial fishing boats loom in the distance, most likely foreign. Tiny, fragile islets, connected during low tide and isolated during high tide, border the photo. Blood seeps from the shore, where village women prepare the daily catch for eager schoolchildren. And the small boy clutches his translucent life preserver, drifting slowly out to sea.

While some criticize the country of Tuvalu for storing their garbage on the far tip of the island, much of the garbage drifts to Tuvalu, rather than from it. This refrigerator provided a source of play for village children for many hours.

Many visitors to Tuvalu, myself included, store all personal garbage and recycling during their stay, to be properly disposed of upon returning home. The simple reality is that there is a lack of space in Tuvalu – with climate change making matters only worse. The government and aid organizations have made significant progress on waste management in the recent past.

Even the most rudimentary houses in Tuvalu have water cisterns, many of which have been donated through foreign aid. Fresh water lenses have been infiltrated by salt water during storm surges, and a growing population on Funafuti stresses local water supplies. Last year, water had to be shipped in from overseas because of an extended drought.

With the Pacific ocean on the left and the lagoon on the right, this image highlights the dire situation people who live in Tuvalu find themselves in when faced with a rising sea and increased storm surges. Awareness of climate change in Tuvalu was higher than any place I have ever visited.

Homes build on the ocean-side in Tuvalu do not enjoy the reef protection the lagoon-side offers, causing increased vulnerability to climate change impacts. Homemade sea walls like the one pictured here are common, yet only offer minimal protection from storms and wave surges.

Taken elsewhere, this photo would represent a fringe example of the most vulnerable in a population. In Tuvalu, this photo represents average vulnerability- a home that sits just feet above the water line. And this photo is taken during low tide.

The Funafuti Conservation Area peeks out of the surrounding waters, covering 33 square kilometers of protected reef, lagoon, channel, ocean, and island habitats. The preservation project began in 1996 and is one of 17 Pacific Island Country conservation areas, and happens to the one of the loveliest places I have ever visited.

Brook Meakins is an activist and attorney in Berkeley, California with a practice that specializes in providing legal assistance and advocacy for the populations of low-lying island countries who face imminent threat of climate-related disaster.