Connecting islands, weathering storms

People standing on the shore of a tropical island

In an era of smartphones and social networks, connecting with family and friends has become an integral part of everyday life for many people. Here in Bangkok, I know when my old classmates have had a reunion on a Friday night in Washington, D.C. — or more importantly, when my friends report themselves as safe on Facebook after an earthquake in Nepal or a typhoon in the Philippines.

However, in many other places such as Tuvalu, a remote Pacific island country, distance remains an unyieldingly defining element of life.

Seven years in the making

In June 2010, I made my first trip to Tuvalu, which has a landmass of 2.6 square kilometres and maximum elevations of a few metres. Anticipating intensifying tropical cyclones as a result of climate change, the government had asked UNDP to help improve communication between the country’s nine islands.

At the time of our team’s visit, the communication facilities that connected the islands were extremely weak. For example, only two vessels traveled from the main island to the other eight — hundreds of kilometres apart — every two to five weeks. Imagine the related challenges in a country where sea travel is the only way to move people and goods.

Three independent communication lines existed: an AM radio system established by Japanese aid agency JICA (which the majority of Tuvaluans considered as the primary source of public information, including for cyclone warnings); satellite phones; and landlines/the Internet. We knew that all of these lines were particularly vulnerable when cyclones hit.