Think big to save small islands

Postcard beaches, great fishing, and… and an existential threat from runaway global warming. The world’s small island states have much in common, not all of it good.

The data is merciless. Because of past greenhouse gas emissions and the inert response to climate change, the world is locked into further warming in the coming decades. For low-lying island states, the question is whether that rise will be below 2 degrees – uncomfortable but survivable – or the worst-case scenario of 4 degrees and above, in which case the impact will be severe, pervasive and irreversible.

The Alliance of Small Island States is at the Paris climate summit to demand a cut in emissions to keep warming below 1.5 degrees. The peril the 39 AOSIS countries face gives them a moral authority, and some influence in the negotiations. US President Barack Obama is due to meet the group today to hear first-hand its concerns.

Sea level rise, increased tropical storms, and droughts are the recognised threats to low-lying coastal areas. But that is not the full picture. “Climate change is undermining the essential ecosystems on which the economies of SIDS [Small Island Developing States] depend,” notes a report by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, which provides technical input to policymakers.

The hits include the impact on tourism, fisheries, availability of freshwater, agricultural production, the viability of coastal settlements and infrastructure – from roads and power lines to schools and hospitals.

It started with the coral

In 1998, the western Indian Ocean suffered a mass dying off of coral – otherwise known as “bleaching” – as a result of an El Niño season. As the seas warmed, the coral expired, forcing the fish away. It provided an important example of the interrelatedness and the fragility of the ecosystem, and gave rise to an environmental movement.

Coral reefs are extremely vulnerable to heat stress and ocean acidification. They are also vital to the “blue economy” in the Indian Ocean, based on fisheries and tourism. It supports 30 million people along Africa’s eastern coast, and the islands of Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, and the Seychelles, according to the UN Environment Programme’s Nairobi Convention. Tourism alone is worth $6 billion a year.

Most small islands have similar handicaps in that they are remote, cannot generate economies of scale, and have a “small number of skilled workers, a poor infrastructural base, limited technological investment and a struggling agricultural sector,” according to a UN Economic Commission for Africa study.

Coming together

Regional cooperation is an important step in overcoming those hurdles. The 1998 El Niño event in the Indian Ocean was a wake-up call for islands and countries along its western rim. The Indian Ocean provides nearly a quarter of the world’s tuna catch, and the Seychelles – home to the largest tuna canning factories – has been at the forefront of action to protect the region’s bio-diversity.

It has set up the Western Indian Ocean Coastal Challenge as a “platform to galvanise political support in the region to combat climate change and promote sustainable livelihoods,” explained Wills Agricole, principal secretary in charge of climate change and energy at the Seychelles ministry of environment.

WIOCC is also going a step further, building an alliance with coastal rim countries to develop best practice around marine conservation. “Our approach is different from the other small island nations as we consider anyone with a border touching the ocean as a stakeholder in the affairs of our seas,” said Agricole.

Early this year the Seychelles and US environmental group The Nature Conservancy, signed a ground-breaking debt buy-back deal with the Paris Club, which will trigger a $31 million investment in marine conservation. The Seychelles has already set aside some 200,000 square kilometres of its territorial waters as “replenishment zones” to bolster tuna fish spawning.  

Said Hassani, a lecturer at the University of Comoros, believes sea-sharing neighbours must begin to look at the ocean as a regional resource instead of in terms of narrow national interests. “We may come from different cultures, political backgrounds and nationalities, but when it comes to the environment, we share the same ocean,” he told IRIN.

What can be done?

There is a multitude of ways islands can adapt and make themselves more resilient to climate change. These include engineering solutions such as sea defences and water storage systems; legislative approaches around revised building codes and land-use zoning; as well as technological fixes such as using more resilient crops, according to a paper commissioned by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

But small islands do not have uniform climate risk profiles. Traditional knowledge can have a role to play in risk management in some countries. There are recognised benefits in community-wide approaches, and there is also scope for innovative insurance schemes. And, as a final option, there is migration.

Adaptation has its limits for economically vulnerable islands. “More-diversified economies have more-robust responses to climate stress, yet most small islands, particularly developing ones, lack economies of scale in production, thus specialise in niche markets and developing monocultures (e.g. bananas or sugar) [which are climate-sensitive],” notes the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.

The Economic Commission for Africa calls for a range of interventions to “unlock the development potential of African Small Island Developing States”, which includes strengthening food security, technology transfer, a focus on renewable energy, and targeted interventions aimed at poor communities.

A lack of finance is the most critical constraint to adaptation. The CDKN report concludes: “What is clear is that SIDS [Small Island Developing States] needs resources to build viable adaptation frameworks and capabilities, and critical infrastructure for development.”

If the Paris climate conference can generate agreement on that, along with a credible action plan to reduce earth-warming gases, the world’s small islands will be the first to celebrate.

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For more climate coverage, go to our COP 21 special feature