Tuvalu is about to test the resilience of its islands in a way that has never been seen before. In the next year or two there will be 4 new projects that will in one way or another alter the natural flows of sand and water that are part of the island’s natural defence and maintenance systems.
The projects are:
(1) Foreshore Reclamation Project adjacent to the main Church and Falekaupule. This includes removal of rocks and rubble from the lagoon-side near-shore areas of two islets of Funafuti Atoll, Funamanu and Papaelise, to be used on the main islet of Fogafale to extend part of the shoreline lagoon-wards
(2) Beach construction on Fogafale – extension of dredging for Borrow Pits Project to create sandy beaches (possibly protected by rock or sand bags) along parts of Fogafale close to the government buildings
(3) Outer islands Harbours Project
(4) Foreshore stabilisation on two outer islands (Nukufetau and Nanumea)
In their natural form, atolls and their islands are self-building, self-repairing and self-maintaining – as long as the building forces are equal to or greater than the breaking forces (see article here). This is true right up until something changes, either by nature or at human hands. And then when it is no longer true, atolls can start eroding quite quickly within a few short months or years.
When humans alter systems they can quite literally pass the job of maintenance out of the hands of nature (who does it for free) and into their own hands, at great expense. So the correct question to ask when embarking on any development is NOT simply:
Can we build this seawall / beach / harbour etc here on this island?
Most engineers will of course say “yes”. And they can build such a structure, which experience has shown can lead to many downstream effects that can be devastating for islands.
But the REAL QUESTION is:
How can we build a seawall / beach / harbour without disrupting the natural maintenance systems of the atoll? Or better still, how could we provide the service humans are seeking in a way that does not transfer the maintenance of the island or atoll to us?
This is of course a whole new ball game, and one many donors and engineers do not consider. When calculating the economic costs and benefits of projects, the costs of atoll maintenance, normally free (an ‘ecosystem service’), are not factored in where the project could change that free service. The costs of battling on-going erosion around a poorly designed harbour could end up costing far more than the harbour itself.
One recent project that did ask these questions was the Borrow Pits Remediation Project which has just been completed on Funafuti. From its very beginning the project was designed with these questions in mind.
With two islets already lost from Funafuti, one during Cyclone Pam earlier this year, asking the right questions about the relationships between proposed developments and their impacts on island maintenance seems like a good idea.