Small islands are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Towns and villages tend to cluster on the coast and are therefore exposed to greater risk from sea level rise, storm surges from hurricanes and cyclones, and coastal zone flooding.
Exposed and vulnerable
On most islands, the capital city and government ministries are on the coast–and risk being damaged and dysfunctional at precisely the time that their disaster management capability and organizational competence are most required. As the days get hotter, periods of drought will become longer and more frequent. At the same time, storms are likely to become more intense, with flooding and landslides occurring more often. Where fishing is an important livelihood for a significant part of the population, the effects of sea level rise and the acidification of the oceans are almost certain to disrupt and endanger fishers’ livelihoods.
Smaller islands are more vulnerable still: many are low-lying and at risk from being completely swamped by storm surges. Several island states may disappear entirely over the next twenty years as sea levels rise: their populations forced to emigrate to higher ground in neighboring countries better able to withstand storm events and higher sea levels. The social and economic dislocation, and potentially the conflict, caused by these mass movements of island populations will have serious political and economic regional consequences.
SIDS are special
The special case of small island developing states (SIDS) was first recognized by the international community at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The focus at that time was on sustainable development. In Agenda 21 it was stressed that:
Small island developing States and islands supporting small communities are a special case both for environment and development. They are ecological fragile and vulnerable. Their small size, limited resources, geographic dispersion, and isolation from markets, place them at a disadvantage economically and prevent economies of scale.
Since then, several international frameworks have been established that refer to the constraints faced by SIDS in achieving sustainable development. In 1994, the Barbados Programme of Action (BPOA) transformed the recommendations made by Agenda 21 into concrete actions and measures intended to enable SIDS to achieve sustainable development. In 2005, the Mauritius Strategy for the further implementation of the BPOA was adopted with a view to addressing the implementation gap that continued to confront SIDS at that time. In 2010, a high-level meeting was held during the 65th session of the UN General Assembly to carry out a five-year review of the progress made in addressing the vulnerabilities of SIDS through the Mauritius Strategy.
Samoa steps up
During the UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, the conference noted once again the particular difficulties faced by small island developing states. The conference called for a third international conference on SIDS, a call that was answered by Samoa—which offered to host the conference in 2014. The conference was held in Apia, Samoa, in September 2014, and led to the declaration of the ‘SAMOA Pathway’. The name stands for Small Island Development States Accelerated Modalities of Action. Climate change was identified as one of the priority actions, with the SIDS requesting assistance from the international community to enable them:
- To build resilience to the impacts of climate change and to improved their adaptive capacity through the design and implementation of climate change adaptation measures appropriate to their respective vulnerabilities and economic, environmental, and social situation;
- To improve the baseline monitoring of island systems and the downscaling of climate model projections to enable better projections of the future impacts on small islands;
- To raise awareness and communicate climate change risks including through public dialogue with local communities, to increase human and environmental resilience to the longer-term impacts of climate change;
- To address remaining gaps in capacity for gaining access to and managing climate finance.
However, what is now clear is that development can never be sustainable if countries are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Small islands suffer substantial economic losses when impacted by extreme weather linked to climate change. In poorer countries, governments typically lack the resources to support communities trying to cope with the damage wrought by storms and flooding.
Families are forced to sell possessions and physical capital in order to raise money to repair housing and pay for healthcare for the injured. Communities become poorer and even more vulnerable. If extreme weather events become more frequent and more damaging, many families never recover and descend permanently into poverty.