Monday, May 30, 2011

Whither Tuvalu?

The sea has been rising and will pretty clearly continue to rise.  This is not cause for immediate concern to citizens of Utah or Kyrgyzstan, but it's of great concern to citizens of countries such as Maldives (highest elevation 2.3 meters) or Kiribati (a few meters).  Or Tuvalu (4.5 meters).

Bear in mind that an island nation does not have to be completely inundated to become uninhabitable.  As the sea rises, the water inland becomes brackish and plants stop growing.  Storms become more destructive.  Even normal tides can become problematic and, leaving that aside, the amount of land, say, two meters above the sea will typically be dramatically less than the amount one meter above the sea.  It's a serious concern.

The Economist considers the worst case of an island nation becoming completely uninhabitable.  International law is unclear on this, there not being a lot of precedent, but the article speculates that, while the residents of the nation may be displaced and the nation itself no longer meet the criteria of having a clear territory or a permanent population, yet a nation might still remain a legal entity.  This matters because under this scenario the nation would still retain assets.

The most obvious asset is the territorial claim under the law of the sea (mainly territorial waters of 12 nautical miles and an economic zone of 200 nautical miles), but in the case of Tuvalu there is also the .tv domain (Maldives and Kiribati have their own domains of course, but haven't been able to exploit them economically the way Tuvalu has).  I've written before about how this didn't pan out to be quite the bonanza it was originally hoped to be, but according to Wikipedia it does bring in $4 million a year, or about $400 per year per capita under a contract expiring around 2012.

It's not clear what price the domain might fetch in the next round of negotiations, and in any case it would be small compensation for losing one's homeland, but amid all the sadness it's remarkable that perhaps some day the proceeds from a piece of virtual real estate will help sustain a virtual nation.

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