Tuvalu turns to Metaverse as islands disappear under rising sea levels

By Elizabeth Ormond

Funafuti, Tuvalu. The UN has classified the low-lying South Pacific island nation as ‘extremely vulnerable’ to climate change. Photo / Getty Images

Is the metaverse the best place for a sinking island nation to seek asylum? Some from the Tuvaluan community aren't so sure.

Addressing world leaders at COP27, Tuvalu Minister of Foreign affairs Simon Kofe said his country may cease to exist if climate change continues unchecked.

Kofe showed a digital rendering of the main island Funafuti, saying that if Tuvalu could no longer exist in the physical world, then it would find its place in the metaverse.

"As our land disappears, we have no choice but to become the world's first digital nation… to keep them safe from harm, no matter what happens in the physical world, we'll move them to the cloud."

Some experts predict that the country may disappear completely under the waves by the year 2100.

Riiti Conway, who spent her childhood in Tuvalu, said that while shifting to a digital space could preserve the nation's landscape and heritage, she was reluctant to entrust that responsibility to the metaverse.

"I went through a wave of emotions. I thought we were giving up, but then I realised this was a statement to the world to take action," she said.

Conway admitted that although it was a "very creative way of preserving our culture", she questioned whether virtual platforms not created by Tuvalu itself were the best choice.

"Why the metaverse though?" she asked.

"This doesn't belong to Tuvalu, we don't own it. What interest does this company have in helping our country?"

She was also concerned about Tuvalu's ability to govern itself in a digital realm.

A digital replica of Te Afualiku seen during Tuvalu Minister of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs Simon Kofe's COP27 address. Photo / Simon Kofe

A digital replica of Te Afualiku seen during Tuvalu Minister of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs Simon Kofe's COP27 address. Photo / Simon Kofe

Keith Toma, a south Auckland businessman of Tuvaluan descent, said the prospect of Tuvalu disappearing into the Pacific Ocean was deeply saddening. He was however receptive to using the metaverse.

"It is very sad we have had to look at this as an option, but from my perspective, this is another avenue we can use to preserve our culture and heritage. It's a smart move to go digital for those reasons."

Toma said that because many from Tuvalu currently live outside of Tuvalu, as a community they were well-accustomed to keeping their way of life alive.

"We're still quite traditional - even when it comes to making headpieces and grass skirts. We still use the same methods and materials as we would have back in Tuvalu. Our festivals also allow us to be resilient in our culture and remain strong."

Loran Temio Surendran said she was in favour of a digital version of Tuvalu although she was still coming to terms with the idea of not having a physical country to travel to in the future.

"The fact that it won't be here in a few years' time is really sad for us. We love to go and visit our families and listen to our elderly tell us of what they used to do as children. The memories that we share will stay in our hearts."

Public Interest Journalism, funded through NZ On Air