Establishing the foundations for climate-resilient infrastructure in Tuvalu

Learn how an Australian volunteer engineer supported the implementation of Tuvalu's Te Kaniva (Climate Change Policy).

Acknowledging the rapidly changing and increasingly complex global humanitarian environment, the Australian Volunteers Program has committed to increasing volunteer placements in climate change, disaster resilience and food security 

To support the development of new partnerships and to document outcomes in this area, the Australian Volunteers Program commissioned CoLab, a Fiji-based development consultancy, to develop a Pacific Climate Research report. The following case study was developed as part of this report. 

Climate change, rising oceans and other associated disasters are of immense threat to Tuvalu and its people, and are exacerbated by the nation’s ecological, socio-economic and technological challenges.

The atoll nation of Tuvalu is roughly halfway between Fiji and Nauru and, in terms of population and land size, it is the world’s third and fourth smallest respectively. Its highest point is just 4.6 metres above sea level

The Te Kaniva (Tuvalu Climate Change Policy) lays out the Tuvalu Government’s response to the expected impacts of climate change and the risk of climate change-related disasters over the 10 years from 2012 to 2021. The policy, which defines seven priority goals, strategies and outcomes for climate safety and resilience, influences other government policy areas and complements the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

One of the seven goals of the policy is developing and maintaining Tuvalu’s infrastructure to withstand climate change impacts, climate variability, disaster risks and climate change projection.

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Aerial view of Tuvalu. Photo: Darren James
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Tuvalu coastline. Photo: Darren James

Climate change-related events have had a significant impact on Tuvaluans in recent years. Storm surges have become more frequent and more intense, rainfall has decreased, and low-lying areas of the capital Funafuti have been totally inundated.

In the short-term, buildings and houses have been damaged and destroyed, and the country’s lifeline, its runway, submerged. Longer term, there is the fear from Tuvaluans that their nation could simply disappear.

The Public Works Department, one of the key implementing agencies of the climate change policy, has a mandate to improve the quality of life for Tuvaluans by ensuring safe, resilient, and disaster-proof infrastructure. In addition to infrastructure, the department is also responsible for water supply and distribution.

Climate resilience is at the forefront of any new construction works the department undertakes, and new infrastructure produced by the department needs to be climate and disaster resilient.

The department identified the need to better improve the capacity of their graduate engineers. In October 2017 Australian volunteer Ross Carnegie joined the team. A civil engineer, Ross supported the department to build the capacity of graduate engineers, and, critically, supported public infrastructure works with a focus on climate-proofing, and disaster resilient designs. 

With Ross’ support the department was able to increase the number of graduate engineers, and to deliver more government and donor-funded projects.

By working with external stakeholders to provide technical and mentoring advice on government and donor funded infrastructure projects, Ross played a key role in improving the department’s capacity.

Ross supported the team to climate-proof building designs, and provided advice on how changing climate conditions can affect infrastructure.

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Children playing and swimming in the ocean. Photo: Darren James
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Fresh fish, a key part of the Tuvaluan diet. Photo: Darren James

The importance of responding to climate change and its resultant disasters underpins the department’s approach to infrastructure development and was core to Ross’ assignment.

Ross worked with staff from all levels of the department - he supported young graduate engineers with design processes and on-site project management, and also worked closely with senior management, providing mentoring and technical support to the new Acting Director. The support he provided to improve the organisation’s systems and processes continues to have a positive impact well after his assignment ended.

One of Ross’ lasting legacies is the Public Convention Centre, built for the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting, hosted by Tuvalu. Ross was instrumental during the procurement process for this key infrastructure project.