WelTec student tackling the changing climate of Tokelau

From one of the most vulnerable small island nations on earth, Tokelauan Toloa Scholarship winner and WelTec mechanical engineering student Melissa Baker-Kupa is striving to contribute a workable and meaningful solution to rising sea levels due to global warming



The island nation of Tokelau consists of three small coral atolls between Samoa and New Zealand. The only transportation to Tokelau is by way of a boat journey from Samoa that takes at least 24 hours. The three islands cover 10 square kilometres of land from three to five metres above sea level.


The population is around 1,500 people who rely on fishing and subsistence-based agriculture. Tokelau depends on New Zealand’s economic assistance to supplement government funding for the majority of the island’s infrastructure developments. Going between Tokelau’s three villages takes up to six hours.


Melissa was born and raised in Lower Hutt, Wellington. She is the eldest of three children (brother Penaia, and sister Matelina Lihe) of Cooper Kupa and Merry Baker-Kupa.


Having grown up knowing the place she’s descended from is among the most threatened motivates her to find a solution. For Melissa Baker-Kupa, it’s down to engineering, which she says is everywhere in modern day life.


“When you look at the things that are part of modern life which we take for granted, such as power, fresh water, sanitation, bridges, tunnelsand so on, engineering is right up there,” says Melissa, who always had an inquisitive mind about how things work.


“When I tell friends and family that I’m studying engineering, some of them say, ‘Great, you can fix my car’. I have to tell them it’s not the type of engineering I’m studying for.”


That curiosity is increasingly becoming a necessity in which she wants to contribute towards. The United Nations Climate Change Conference COP23 held in Fiji last year stated that ‘Rising seas threaten human habitation and subsistence agriculture.


Tokelau’s low-lying, flat landscape puts human habitation in a vulnerable position with regard to rising sea levels. Smaller islets have already disappeared, and now the larger islets are at risk.’


Melissa knows there is no higher ground where the people of Tokelau can move as the sea rises. The soil is a mixture of coral and sand, which can only support limited crops such as breadfruit, coconut, pandanus, giant swamp taro, and banana.


The larger islets are at risk from rising sea levels as the ocean encroaches and increases the salinity of the already-poor soil. Several species of plants have disappeared due to soil erosion.


She admits at times she feels overwhelmed by such findings, but being awarded a Toloa Scholarship was a significant boost to which she’s determined to make the most of.


The Scholarship is part of the Tertiary Education Strategy 2014-19 with a target to prioritise getting industries the skills needed, particularly in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce.


2019 was Melissa’s final year of study with employment already confirmed!

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