Does a country still exist if it sinks?

2023 09 22 RTRMADP 3 UN ASSEMBLY scaled
Tuvalu's Prime Minister Kausea Natano addresses the 78th Session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City, U.S., September 22, 2023. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

The consequences of climate change, characterised by increasing global temperatures and rising sea levels, have prompted widespread concern for the future. On a daily basis, manifestations of climate change may not appear immediately dramatic, but their cumulative effects have grown increasingly alarming over time. In some Pacific nations, climate change has altered the environment in such a way that it has resulted in the displacement of both human populations and wildlife with entire nations facing extinction from rising sea levels.

The Arguments

Tuvalu’s government is now exploring a different question: how can it ensure its existence under such circumstances? Mr. Natano’s cabinet has made constitutional amendments to assert that the country will persist “in perpetuity,” even if its physical landmass does not. This alteration, effective as of October 1st, may not bring about substantial changes on its own, as under international law, a country must maintain a physical territory and a permanent population. However, the ramifications of climate change erasing these attributes from a state have not been thoroughly considered. Tuvalu hopes that if other vulnerable nations adopt a similar stance, international law might evolve in response.

The government is exploring the notion of transforming Tuvalu into a “digital nation,” capable of offering services and preserving cultural traditions online even if its people are dispersed to other countries. There are even speculative ideas about creating a 3D representation of its islands for web users to explore.

The government of Tuvalu also expects to maintain its rights to the waters surrounding present-day Tuvalu. By combining the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) that extend 370 km (200 nautical miles) from their coastlines, Pacific island nations collectively have rights to a vast ocean area, exceeding the size of Africa. Leaders in the region fear losing these rights, if any or all of the islands that constitute their territories vanish. Consequently, Tuvalu’s constitutional amendment declares that its maritime boundaries will persist alongside its statehood. Other Pacific governments have similarly delineated their maritime zones and passed laws asserting that rising sea levels will not compromise their EEZs.

The Facts

For more than three decades, Tuvalu has been urging developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Tuvalu’s government has issued warnings that its territory could become submerged by the end of the century, leading to the disappearance of the country. In September, Prime Minister Kausea Natano expressed the gravity of the situation, stating, “It’s a matter of disappearing from the surface of this Earth.”

Other Pacific nations are also likely to disappear this century. Globally, the average rate of sea-level rise has been measured at 3.1 millimetres per year since 1993. However, in the Federated States of Micronesia, comprising four primary islands, land loss is occurring at a rate three times faster. Here, the sea level is ascending by as much as 10 millimetres annually, placing the country in imminent peril of vanishing due to challenges such as coastal inundation, flooding, erosion, and storm surges. The residents of the Marshall Islands, located in central Pacific Ocean, have one of two options: constructing new artificial islands for relocation or elevating the existing ones. Research indicates that the sea level in the Marshall Islands could potentially surge by up to almost half a metre by the year 2045. The Maldives became known all over the world for conducting the world’s inaugural underwater cabinet meeting in 2009, to raise awareness about rising sea levels.

In 2014, in an effort to avert a potential humanitarian crisis, Kiribati acquired land in Fiji, situated approximately 2,000 km away (1,200 miles), as a contingency for relocating its population of just over 100,000 people if the Pacific island nation is inundated by rising sea levels. As Kiribati’s atolls sit only around two metres above sea level, Kiribati may be submerged within the next three decades.

The acquired land encompasses approximately 20 square km (8 square miles) and is densely forested. Then-president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, stated that if it became absolutely necessary, Kiribati will relocate its citizens and it will also relocate as a state, continuing to exist, even if it’s located in another country.

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