|Homes are built on pitts. photo credit: Andrew Quilty|
By Matt Siegel, The New York Times, October 16, 2012
FUNAFUTI, Tuvalu — The sun is setting over the Pacific islet, casting the isolated lagoon in brilliant shades of red, orange and topaz. Towering palm trees sway slowly in the warm tropical breeze. Out in the distance, fishermen in a small boat slowly troll the coral atolls for reef fish, much as the people of Tuvalu have done for hundreds of years or more.
But none of these things are what hit you first about this setting, on the edge of the water. What hits you first is the smell. Household garbage mingles with wastes both human and animal in open pits that, when filled with seawater during high tide, turn into a fetid soup under the blistering sun. It is in one of the dozens of precariously balanced stilt houses over those pits that Kalalisa Uilese lives with her husband and three children.
“There’s not enough land,” Ms. Uilese, 47, said matter-of-factly inside her dark, makeshift living room. “That’s why we build our houses on them.”
Tuvalu, a tiny cluster of nine coral atolls and islands about halfway between Australia and Hawaii in the South Pacific, is one of the smallest countries on the planet, and many scientists say it is getting smaller. Its population of fewer than 12,000 people inhabits a landmass of 26 square kilometers, or 10 square miles, about a third the size of Manhattan. On Funafuti, the main atoll and Tuvalu’s capital, the widest point between the lagoon around which the town spreads and the ocean beyond is just half a kilometer.
The lowest point is just above sea level, a spot from which you can be tricked into thinking that you are somehow standing below the vast Pacific, looking up rather than out into it.
Data from the National Research Council in the United States predict that global sea levels could rise by as much as 55 inches by 2100 as a result of climate change, which, when combined with damage to the coral roots of Tuvalu by rising acidity in seawater, could threaten the country’s very existence. Then there is coastal erosion, a result of rising water and harsh weather but also human activities like excavation for construction and other development projects.
During World War II, as fighting between the United States and Japan raged across the Pacific, the British government granted the United States military the use of its colony on what is now Tuvalu but was then known as the Ellice Islands. Massive antiaircraft guns, the concrete base of at least one of which still stands a lonely vigil in the surf, were quickly erected. But for the islands to reach their full wartime potential, they needed an airstrip. Large quantities of coral were dug up and carted off to be crushed and mixed for the tarmac. The gaping pits that were left behind across Funafuti, called “borrow pits,” were never filled and eventually began to be used for refuse. Add to this the doubling of Tuvalu’s population since 1980, and it is easy to understand why, as usable land dwindled, homes like Ms. Uilese’s started to stretch across the pits.
For Betty Vuva, 49, the head teacher at Nauri Primary School, the borrow pits and their attendant health problems are a constant source of anxiety. As the changing tides have steadily encroached on the island from without, she says, the land around the pits has become more crowded.
“Well, so far no houses have collapsed,” she said with a wry laugh.
The government of Tuvalu, which survives on a combination of foreign aid and dividends from the sale in 1998 of the .tv Internet domain name, has repeatedly asked the United States government for assistance in refilling the borrow pits. In 2003, the United States Army Corps of Engineers carried out a site assessment and cost study at the behest of the State Department. The 152-page report acknowledged the provenance of the pits and starkly identified their cost to the island.
“Solid waste disposal sites surrounding residential homes and animals have developed into a health hazard for nearby residents,” the report said. “An engineered solid waste landfill site and management plan needs to be implemented for the safety of the people and longevity of the island.”
Three options for refilling the pits were considered in the document, ranging in cost from $14,950 to $28.5 million, but the issue has gone no further. Tuvalu, which has an annual gross domestic product of about $35 million, says it is ill-equipped to act on the report by itself.
“The government has never had the financial resources needed to fill in the borrow pits,” Prime Minister Willy Telavi said in an e-mailed response to questions. “We just don’t have the money. Not even close.”
He added: “Over the years we have approached many donor countries, including the United States, about filling in the borrow pits but without success. If the U.S., which to us has always been the likely donor to fix the problem, was willing to revisit the issue of filling in the borrow pits we would welcome their efforts with open arms.”
That, however, seems unlikely, at least in the short term, according to a senior United States administration official who cited the costs of carrying out the project using environmentally sound methods.
“In order not to cause further environmental damage to the land or surrounding seas, material may have to be imported, which would increase the cost considerably,” the official said in an e-mail on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to comment publicly. “We continue to work on this with the government of Tuvalu and we look forward to finding a mutually acceptable, affordable and environmentally responsible solution.”
For James Conway, 53, an adviser on energy policy to the Ministry of Economic Planning and Foreign Affairs, that kind of solution has already been too long in coming. Mr. Conway, an American who moved to Tuvalu as a United States Peace Corps volunteer more than 20 years ago, is now married to a Tuvaluan woman with whom he has a teenage daughter, and he worries about the health effects of the borrow pits.
“People in greater numbers are starting to build next to them, over them and in them with houses on stilts,” he said in an interview inside his sweltering office in the island’s main government building. However, Mr. Conway dismissed the idea that Washington somehow owes it to Tuvalu to fill in the pits, pointing out that the runway has brought enormous economic benefits to the country.
The idea of the Americans “filling in the borrow pits as some kind of war reparations is probably stretching it a little bit,” he said. Still, he added, “it is valuable land. If the borrow pits could be filled in, there would be economic value associated with it. It would dramatically improve public health by decreasing water-borne illnesses.”
For Ravina Falemi, 27, and her three small daughters, that would be a blessing. On a recent afternoon she stood holding her youngest daughter, Emma, as about a dozen half-naked children splashed around in the acrid water. One small boy stood on the narrow dirt path leading to the cluster of homes where Ms. Falemi lives, fishing in the muck with a homemade rod.
“The common sickness is diarrhea,” she said. “We always advise the children not to come here because of that, but sometimes small kids wash their hands in it and then come home and take a biscuit or something.”
Should the United States help with the pits? Yes, she said. But will anyone ever actually do anything about them?
“Who knows?” she said. “Maybe we’ll just migrate for good.”