The Pacific Islands are drowning under rising sea levels. These stunning photos show their precarious way of life.

Mario Tama / GettyYoung villagers play in the Pacific Ocean in the village of Waisisi on December 3, 2019 in Tanna, Vanuatu.
  • Pacific Island nations, like Tuvalu and Vanuatu, experience climate change every day.
  • Warmer waters, coral bleaching, flooding, erosion, and changing weather patterns are changing their way of life.
  • In 2018, Vanuatu’s foreign minister Ralph Regenvanu announced the nation was considering suing fossil fuel companies and the governments that enabled them.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Rising sea levels aren’t a distant concern in the Pacific.

The traditional way of life in island nations like Vanuatu,Tuvalu, Fiji, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands is deteriorating because of climate change.

They’re experiencing warmer waters, coral bleaching, tidal flooding, erosion, changing weather patterns, and more brutal cyclones. Thousands of people have already fled the region for New Zealand, seeking a new life.

In 2018, Vanuatu’s foreign minister, Ralph Regenvanu, said his government was considering suing fossil fuel companies and the governments that enabled them.

He told CNN that the country needed compensation, arguing that it contributed only .0016% of global emissions, but bears the brunt of the effects. In January, he told Business Insider by email, “Investigatory work still proceeding, nothing new to update as of yet, no decisions made yet, still looking at options.”

Here’s what life is like on Vanuatu and Tuvalu, and the struggles they face as the planet warms and sea levels rise.


For some, living in the Pacific is like walking on a knife’s edge. This is Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu, the world’s fourth-smallest country.

Mario Tama / GettyAn aerial view of a strip of land between the Pacific Ocean (R) and lagoon on November 25, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

At points, the island is as narrow as 65 feet wide, according to the United Nations. At its widest, the land measures only about 1,300 feet across.


For others, life is preparing for the next cyclone. This is Vanuatu, which has about 280,000 residents living on 82 islands.

Mario Tama / GettyAn aerial view of Erakor island and the coastline of Port Vila on December 07, 2019 in Port Vila, Vanuatu.

Source: Reuters


In 2015, it was battered by Cyclone Pam, which caused the island to lose about 64% of its GDP.

Dave Hunt / APSamuel, only his first name given, carries a ball through the ruins of their family home as his father, Phillip, at back, picks through the debris in Port Vila, Vanuatu in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam Monday, March 16, 2015.

Source: Reuters


These islands might look like paradise from above, but up close it’s another story.

Mario Tama/GettyAn aerial view of a strip of land between the Pacific Ocean (BOTTOM) and lagoon on November 27, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Source: The Guardian


In 2015, the UN released a report that showed the climate change challenges the Pacific Islands — like Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Fiji, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands — all faced.

Business Insider/Mark AbadiThe islands are scattered to the East of Australia and Asia.

Source: Business Insider


In 2019, another UN report found that glaciers were losing hundreds of billions of tons of ice every year, causing seas to rise faster than previously thought.

Mario Tama/GettyA man swims off Eton Beach on November 30, 2019 in Efate, Vanuatu.

Source: Business Insider


There are numerous threats stemming from climate change: warmer temperatures, less rainfall, tidal flooding, coastal erosion, and changing weather patterns, including brutal cyclones.

Mario Tama / GettyAlbea Watt holds his baby son Tanny outside his home, which was destroyed by Cyclone Pam and rebuilt, on December 05, 2019 in Tanna, Vanuatu.

Source: The Guardian


In 2018, Vanuatu’s foreign minister, Ralph Regenvanu, made a call. He announced Vanuatu was considering suing fossil fuel companies and the governments that enabled them.

Mario Tama / GettySuega Apelu (C) calls out to a family member as Tina Makiti looks on as they swim in the lagoon on November 28, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Source: CNN


He told CNN the country needed to be compensated since it contributed .0016% of global emissions, but bore the brunt of the effects. In January he told Business Insider Vanuatu was still investigating its options before taking further action.

Ben Bohane / AFP / GettyVanuatu’s Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu, left, welcoming United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres on the tarmac of Port Vila’s international airport, the capital of Vanuatu in May 2019.

Source: CNN


When UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the Pacific last year, he said it was an existential threat, and the “risks were too real.”

ReutersWhen UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the Pacific last year, he said, the ‘risks were too real.’

He described Tuvalu as“an entire country fighting to preserve its very existence.”

Guterres also said Vanuatu was one of “the most disaster-prone countries, made worse by the global climate emergency.”


Tuvalu did what it could to draw attention to its plight, too. In 2019, it held the Pacific Islands Forum. Leaders were greeted by a group of children sitting in a moat built around a miniature island, singing, “Save Tuvalu, save the world.”

Mario Tama / GettyBoys play in floodwaters occurring around high tide in a low lying area near the airport on November 27, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Source: The Guardian


Tuvalu and Vanuatu are visceral examples of a global problem. They live and struggle with the actual effects of climate change. They’re small, traditional countries surrounded by rising waters.

Mario Tama / GettyFaitau Teikausi and Pasepa Afele pose at a traditional community celebration on November 25, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Source: The Guardian


About 11,000 people live in Tuvalu. The island nation is 10 feet above sea level at its highest point and could be unlivable within 50 to 100 years. Children play on sandbags installed to slow the effects of rising seas.

Mario Tama / GettyBoys play in the lagoon on sandbags reinforcing a land reclamation project, a countermeasure to the rising sea, on November 24, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Source: The Guardian


Erosion isn’t just a future problem for insurers. Every year, the islands get smaller. Two out of Tuvalu’s nine islands are almost submerged. Leitu Frank told The Guardian, “The sea is eating all the sand.”

Mario Tama/GettyAn eroded section of coastline sits next to the lagoon, where a wharf once stood, on November 24, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Source: The Guardian


Fresh water is a concern since rising seas have contaminated many of the islands’ groundwater supplies. These men wait to offload shipped-in water to local villages in Vanuatu.

Mario Tama / GettyWorkers sit on a dock as they wait to offload water storage containers destined for local villages on December 04, 2019 in Tanna, Vanuatu.

Source: The Guardian


Tuvalu has the same problem and is now reliant on rain and deliveries. But in the hot Pacific, it doesn’t rain often.

Mario Tama / GettyRainwater overflows out of a storage tank while being collected on November 24, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Source: The Guardian


Their economies are affected, too. Vanuatu’s people make a living mostly from tourism and farming.

Mario Tama/GettyA vendor wraps food in a banana leaf at the Port Vila Central Market on November 30, 2019 in Port Vila, Vanuatu.

Source: The Commonwealth


For the last 2000 years, the island nation has relied on growing root vegetables like sweet potato, taro, and yams, to eat and sell.

Mario Tama/GettyRuth Nafow cooks corn to sell at a local farmer’s market on December 06, 2019 in Tanna, Vanuatu. Asked about climate change, she said, ‘It’s a really big concern. This will affect our crops in one way or another.’

Source: HuffPost


But farming is becoming increasingly difficult with droughts and salty soil. Here, a woman somberly watches the first significant amount of rainfall the country had in months, in December.

Mario Tama/GettyPeople gather at a local market during the first significant local rainfall in months in an extended dry season on December 6, 2019 in Tanna, Vanuatu.

Source: The Guardian


Many people have had to abandon their gardens, and crops are grown in controlled environments.

Mario Tama / GettyCabbage seedlings are grown in the Taiwan- funded Fatoaga Fiafia Garden on November 27, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Source: The Guardian


Fish, a once-abundant resource, has been affected as well. Fuli Siaosi who works for Tuvalu’s fisheries department told The Guardian, “If there is a man in the family, he will most likely go fishing. It’s cheap — it’s for free!”

Mario Tama / GettyA fisherman cuts up a tuna in front of his home on November 23, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Source: The Guardian


But fish aren’t always safe.

Mario Tama/GettyCoral is viewed beneath the water near a barren islet in the Funafuti atoll on November 26, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Bleached coral, from rising water temperatures, has been poisoning fish. It’s called Ciguatera poisoning.


Eating poisoned fish can cause fevers and stomach problems. The poisoning became more common about a decade ago, as weather patterns began to change.

Mario Tama / GettyFreshly caught fish are stacked in a bucket on November 23, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Source: The Guardian


Instead, food is shipped in. Along with staples like flour, food that used to be grown on the islands, like taro, is also delivered. But it’s not cheap, and far less sustainable than growing crops.

Mario Tama / GettyGoods are tossed ashore from a cargo ferry on December 04, 2019 in Tanna, Vanuatu.

Source: The Guardian


Dealing with trash in such a small space is another difficulty.

Mario Tama / GettyGarbage sits at Funafuti’s dumpsite on November 23, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

On Tavalu, it’s currently stored in a single dump, close to the ocean on one side and a lagoon on the other.


To help, plastic bags, straws, and styrofoam cups have been banned.

Mario Tama / GettyLarisa Josiah weaves a traditional bag made from pandanus fronds on December 05, 2019 in Tanna, Vanuatu.

In February 2019, Tavalu announced its ban was expanding to include disposable diapers and plastic cutlery. As Regenvanu said, these small nations didn’t cause the problem. But they’re trying to alleviate it.


And then there’s the psychological effect of rising sea levels. At high tide, low lying areas flood. Residents told The Guardian they had nightmares “that the sea will soon gobble them up for good.”

Mario Tama/GettyA woman rides her scooter through floodwaters occurring around high tide in a low lying area near the airport on November 27, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Source: The Guardian


Bubbles percolate from the ground in floodwaters during high tides. A common local saying is, “Tuvalu is sinking.”

Mario Tama / GettyBubbles percolate from the ground in floodwaters occurring near high tide in a low lying area near the airport on November 27, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Source: The Guardian


But it’s not all doom and gloom. Locals still celebrate. Here, dancers perform.

Mario Tama / GettyDancers perform at a traditional community celebration on November 25, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Tuvalu gets three commercial flights a week. For the rest of the week, locals make the most of the airport runway, playing and hanging out on the tarmac.

Mario Tama/GettyPeople gather on the airport runway to play sports and socialise on November 25, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Source: The Guardian


They play volleyball on the white sand.

Mario Tama/GettyAn aerial view shows community members playing volleyball on an area of reclaimed land, a countermeasure to the rising sea, next to the Pacific Ocean on November 23, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

And they go to church. Vanuatu’s main religion is Christianity, and across the islands there are Anglican, Presbyterian and, Roman Catholic churches. According to The Guardian, locals often say, “Come what may, God will save us.”

Mario Tama / GettyParishioners worship during a Sunday church service on November 24, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Sources: The Guardian, Daily Post, World Info Zone


People swim. Which is handy as daily temperatures have risen.

Mario Tama / GettyPeople swim at Eton Beach on November 30, 2019 in Efate, Vanuatu.

Source: The Guardian


Already, 2,000 Tuvaluans have moved to New Zealand. It might not sound like much, but adds up when the entire population is 11,000.

Mario Tama / GettyPeople fish for crabs at night using flashlights on the coast of the Pacific Ocean on December 05, 2019 in Tanna, Vanuatu.

But Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoago told The Guardian abandoning the islands was the last resort.


He said relocating people from low-lying countries didn’t solve the problem. Solutions needed to be found, because it was not a Pacific problem, but a global one.

Mario Tama/GettyAn aerial view of a strip of land between the Pacific Ocean (R) and lagoon on November 23, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Source: The Guardian

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