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The Vulnerabilities Of Small Island Developing States Environmental Sciences Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Sciences
Wordcount: 4693 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Small Island Developing States (SIDS) comprise small islands and low-lying coastal countries located across the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and Caribbean Sea. While geographical, climatic, cultural and socio-economic dissimilarities exist between these nations, they face common development constraints and vulnerabilities to Climate Change.

Growth and development of SIDS is restricted by factors such as limited resources, remoteness and volatile weather patterns. Small populations and remoteness also lead to high transportation and communication costs and minimal opportunity to create economies of scale thereby inducing susceptibility to external shocks. SIDS also generally possesses a heavy dependence on imported petroleum products. High electricity prices therefore also present constraints to economic and social development efforts. Consequentially, eleven SIDS nations are also recognised by the United Nations as Least Developed Countries (LDC).

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The environmental impact of human activity is increasingly being recognised across the globe. Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions largely from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation have significantly increased over the last half a century, leading to the Climate Change phenomenon. Symptomatic changes in climate are already being realised, with increasing temperatures, altering rainfall patterns, rising sea-levels and increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters causing social, economic and environmental issues across the globe. While SIDS provide a minimal contribution to global GHG emissions, they are amongst the most vulnerable to its effects. The size of these island states makes them especially susceptible to climatic variations and extreme events as large areas or even entire islands can be directly affected. The consequential economic environmental and social damage can therefore be extensive, without the option of intra-national relief. Key sector such as tourism and agriculture are under serious threat while in some circumstances the very existence of many island states is at risk.

Common characteristics of SIDS not only enhance their susceptibility to experiencing a changing climate but give them a low capacity to adapt to such change. Already experiencing many socio-economic issues such as water and food security, intensification of such issues due to climate change may make these countries uninhabitable.

This paper aims to identify the major vulnerabilities of SIDS to impending Climate Change and consider the role that developed nations should play in assisting their survival.


Across the globe, the effects of Climate Change are already being observed, with SIDS undoubtedly being affected. Sea surface temperatures have been increasing by 0.1°C per decade in the oceans where most SIDS are located (45), while annual and seasonal ocean surface and island air temperatures have increased from 0.6°C to 1.0°C since 1910 throughout a large part of the South Pacific (46). Studies over the period 1971 to 2004 have also suggest warming to be occurring in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Mediterranean regions, with trends ranging from 0°C to 0.5°C per decade (47).

Warming sea temperatures leads to expanding oceans and rising sea levels. This is a key concern for SIDS with the entire Pacific region experiencing a mean rise of +0.77 mm per year (53), while sea-levels in the Caribbean region increase on average by 1mm per year. Local conditions mean there is considerable variation between or even within individual island states. For example, different tectonic movements across the country of Trinidad has lead to rises of about 1mm per year along the west coast, while the south is experiencing an increase of approximately 4mm each year (54).

Changing trends in extreme temperatures have also been observed. The annual number of hot days and warm nights in the South Pacific and Caribbean regions has shown increasing trends, as well as a relative decrease in the annual number of cool days and cold nights (48, 49).

The climate of SIDS is strongly influenced by the ocean-atmospheric interactions. The El Niño Southern Oscillation and decadal variability play a dominant role in experienced periods of drought and high rainfall and the common generation of tropical cyclones and storms in small island regions. Climate Change is already and expected to continually enhance such extreme weather events. Rainfall patterns are becoming more variable. The Caribbean especially has experienced less consecutive dry days while heavy rainfall events are becoming more frequent (50). These changes are projected only to get worse. The intensity and frequency of cyclnes and tropical storms is also expected to increase. Since 1970 the intensity and duration of storms has increased leading to a greater number reaching category 4 and 5 (51).


Despite being heavily reliant on fossil-fuel based energy, in comparison to developed and other developing states SIDS use a relatively modest amount of fossil fuels. Consequentially their greenhouse gas emissions remain low, accounting for less than 1% of global emissions (Table. 1). Furthermore, the annual emissions from the Pacific islands is .96 tonnes of carbon dioxide per capita, equating to only 25% of the worldwide average per person. SIDS thus hold minimal responsibility for the current climate change, yet in a sad irony they are likely to be the most severely impacted.

Table 1. Total Greenhouse Gas Emissions 2003 – Selected Countries (http://cait.wri.org)

Already susceptible to food and water security and human health, climate change is likely to exacerbate such socio-economic issues.

Water Resources

Poor water quality and water stress is common in SIDS. High rainfall and drought periods associated with El Niño episodes significantly impact water security of small islands, while factors such as limited size, geology and topography make their water resources especially sensitive variations in climate. Inadequate infrastructure such as dams, reservoirs and water distribution networks cause further issues for water security in many SIDS.

Small island nations often show a strong dependence on rainfall. Tuvalu and several other countries in the Pacific rely on rainwater as their principal freshwater source; Dominica, in the Caribbean and the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, show almost complete dependence on surface water from streams; while many low-lying coral islands and raised atolls are forced to rely on groundwater due to unsubstantial freshwater lenses. Reduced rainfall, a likely consequence of climate change, constrains the amount of physically harvestable water, reduced river flow and slowed recharge of freshwater lenses. Hence the ability to meet agricultural and domestic water demands is severely compromised. Sea-level rise and flooding can also lead to saltwater intrusion and siltation of freshwater systems. Extreme weather events can also increase water pollution with serious implications for human health and the incidence of water-borne diseases.

Furthermore, a lack of adequate water infrastructure such as dams and reservoirs, results in high runoff during the rainy seasons and consequential losses of surface and stream water to the sea.

Coastal zones

Coastal areas of small islands are generally the site for major settlements and the centre of economic activity. In the Caribbean more than half the population lives within 1.5km of the shoreline, while islands of the Pacific and Indian Ocean, generally establish their villages on the sand terrace or on the beach itself. Communities and critical infrastructure such as schools, electricity generation plants, fuel storage facilities, police stations and hospitals are therefore in direct risk of rising sea-levels and extreme weather events. In the case of a disaster populations are thereby left without basic social services.

Rising sea-levels lead to coastal erosion and in some cases inundation, while physical damage from hurricanes and cyclones also threaten vital coastal assets and human lives of small islands. From 1950 to 2004 76% of the reported disasters in the Pacific island region was cyclones with the average cost per cyclone estimated at US$75.7 million (in 2004 value), while the 2004 hurricane season alone caused damage of around US$2.2 billion in only four countries – the , Grenada, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.

Biodiversity and Tourism

Geographical isolation has allowed the formation of many unique species, making these islands home to a significant proportion of the world’s biodiversity. However, human activity is posing serious threats to the natural ecosystems of SIDS.

Extensive deforestation has occurred for infrastructural development and agriculture, with more than one quarter of the small island states demonstrating greatly reduced forest cover. Terrestrial and marine ecosystems are also experiencing increasing degradation and pollution and overexploitation. Coral cover has declined by up to 80% over the last 3 years in reefs of the Caribbean, with pollution, sedimentation and over-fishing has been determined to be largely responsible. Climate Change will have further consequences for biodiversity and the health of natural ecosystems. Apart from the arising environmental concerns, ensuing social and economic issues also follow due to compromised environmental services.

Physical damage from more frequent and intense natural disasters presents severe implications for marine and terrestrial biodiversity. Sea-level rise and associated flooding can lead to salinisation of soils and adverse effects to mangrove forests. Rises in ocean surface temperature and carbon dioxide concentration further threaten coral reefs, leading to coral bleaching events and decreased calcification rates. Based on projected CO2 levels, it has been suggested that the calcification rate of corals could decrease by about 14 percent to 30 percent by 2050(57). Coral reefs play an important role for small islands, providing key nurseries for fish species, protection of the beach and tourism opportunities.

Many SIDS rely on one or few economic activities, with tourism and travel commonly accounting for more than 25% of Gross Domestic Profit (GDP) and in some cases more than 50% (12). Natural disasters and degradation of ecosystems can severely impact this income generation.

Changing weather- changing distribution of species

Agriculture and fisheries

Agriculture is highly valued and depended upon in SIDS for both subsistence requirements and economic development. Many islands however have limited arable land and prime agricultural regions are generally located on the coastal plains. Climate change and associated sea-level rise therefore poses a significant risk of further reduction of available farming land due to inundation and salinisation. Extreme weather events also adversely impact food crops and other livelihood resources. Cyclones, hurricanes and floods can cause irreparable damage while extended droughts and shortened growing seasons would also reduce yields. Such events have serious implications for food security while reduced exports of cash crops compromises their foreign exchange earnings and position in world trade.

Climate change however is likely to affect varying degrees of economic losses among different island states. Viti Levu, a high island in Fiji, is estimated to have the potential to endure costs in the range of US$23 to 52 million per year by 2050. The low island of Tarawa in Kiribati however faces annual costs of US$8 to 16 million. These costs would represent only 2-3% of Fiji’s GDP in 2002 and 17-18% of Kiribati’s GDP for the same year (58).

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Fisheries are also a critical sector in many SIDS, contributing up to 10% of the GDP. The El Niño / La Nina cycle already causes visible variations in tuna catches, demonstrating the sensitivity of fish stocks to climate variability. Climate change poses the risk of stimulating altered migration patterns and the depth of fish stock, affecting the distribution and availability of fish species with socio-economic consequences.

Human Health

Global warming may lead to a variety of associated human health issues. Direct threats to human welfare include injuries and fatalities from extreme weather events such as floods, hurricanes and landslides, while increased frequency and duration of heat waves can also be expected to increase the risk of heat stress, illness, and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, especially amongst the elderly.

A changing climate can also have indirect implication on human health. Increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns may lead to an increase in water and vector-borne diseases. In 2008, there were 247 million cases of malaria worldwide and nearly one million deaths, mostly among children. Malaria is most commonly caused by the parasites, carried by mosquitoes. Increasing temperatures and flooding events provide favourable environments for mosquitoes; hence climate change is likely to expand the spread of mosquito and the risk of malaria contraction. Variation in precipitation and temperature will also increase the prominence of dengue fever, with such weather patterns attributable several cases in Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago during the period 1980-2000.

Storm surges and flooding events also heighten water pollution, leading to water-borne diseases such as cholera and the diarrheal diseases caused by organisms such as giardia, salmonella and cryptosporidium. Furthermore, deceases in rainfall may lead to reduced available freshwater for human use and consumption, increasing the risk of disease. Secondary malnutrition may increase due to declines in water quality and decreases in agricultural productivity.


Due to the current accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and with recommended emission targets from the IPCC failing to be met by major greenhouse gas emitters, the effects of Climate Change are unavoidable (61). Coupled with the severity in which this is predicted to affect Small Island Developing States, it is imperative that adaptive action is taken for the survival of these nations.

A number of adaptation initiatives have been implemented by SIDS on a local scale, often in an ad hoc manner. For example, since Hurricane Ivan, it has become common practice in Jamaica to place concrete blocks on the top of zinc roofs. Typhoon resistant housing has been implemented in the Philippines after Typhoon Sisang in 1987; and improved housing design is also evident in Costa Rica and Equador, with elevated houses or a reinforced concrete strip as a foundation so that the bamboo walls do not touch the ground and are protected from fungal deterioration.

There are many avenues available to address water security issues. Promotion of drought tolerant vegetation and establishment of river buffer zones enhances the resilience of rivers and catchment areas. National water policies can be used to encourage efficient water use, advocating water saving devices, while revision of building codes can work to improve water resource management, by increasing opportunities for rainwater catchments and storage. The Cajete Terrace agro-systems of Mexico provide an innovative example of adaptation measures to enhance water use efficiency and enables food to be sustainably grown on steep erosion prone slopes4. This works by excess water being fed from sloping terraces into tanks (Cajetes). The water, which would otherwise not be absorbed into the soil, is collected inside the cajetes and slowly seeps into the surrounding soils after the rain has ended. Eroded nutrient rich soil is also trapped inside of the cajetes and later gathered and distributed into the fields. Adaptable farming systems has also be achieved by African farmers through intercropping, diversification of herds and incomes, such as the introduction of sheep in place of goats4.

Climate Monitoring, Forecasting and Early Warning Systems can be an invaluable tool to reduce the impacts of climate change. A National Community Based Flood Early Warning System has been established in the Philippines, allowing predictions and timely responses to possible storm events or flooding. With such equipment, outlooks with lead times of two to six months before the onset of an event may be possible6. Vector dispersion probabilities could also be monitored with such warning systems, allowing opportunities for putting interventions in place, thereby preventing excessive illness and mortality during disease epidemics such as Malaria6. In terms of food production, these systems enable better timed planting and harvesting, opportunity for informed decision of alternative cultivar or crop use, better planned food storage according to future need, and preparation of alternative food procurement strategies in advance1. This would mean more efficient use of seeds, labour, and other household resources in farming and food procurement. Such systems also demonstrate the benefits of regional arrangements pooling resources. Regional management of early warning systems is much more effective in enhancing adaptive capacity than national management.

Education and promotion of responsible environmental practices is also necessary, such as training of fishermen and women in sustainable fishing practices and farmers in sustainable land use practices. Land use plans and subsequent enforcement strategies can also be utilised to achieve less destructive environmental practices such as reducing deforestation. Mangrove and coral systems should be protected to maintain their integrity. This can be achieved through discouraging pollution and restricting development in coastal areas. Controlled coastal development can also minimise exposure of people and property to coastal erosion and inundation.

Relocation programs have been applied in many states to varying degrees. Frequent flooding and erosion necessitated 100 villagers in Lateu Vanuatu to be moved 600m from the coast to higher ground, while Carteret Islanders are being relocated to neighbouring Papua New Guinean island, Bougainville, in response to the excessive impacts of sea-levels rise. Reconstruction of groynes, building sand dune fences and beach renourishment (planting of trees along the coast) has also been used to protect the beach profile and mitigate the impact of coastal erosion on communities.

Building national and regional adaptive capacity and providing further options for adaptation is an important component of many SIDS adaptive programs. This involves strengthening institutions, policies and regulations and linking adaptive strategies with sustainable development. Hence, many SIDS have identified investment into renewable and non-polluting energy systems as a priority. This would not only reduce climate change inducing greenhouse gas emissions, but would promote long-term energy security.



The low emission levels of SIDS means their policy actions are primarily focused on adaptation. However, these countries do not have the capacity to fully fund the required adaptation. The World Bank has estimated adaptation in developing countries to require between US$10 billion and US$40 billion. Additional resources, including finances and technological knowledge, are therefore required from the international community to facilitate SIDS in building their capacity to adapt to a changing climate and develop sustainably.

Currently there is no specific fund which addresses the concerns of SIDS in relation to Climate Change. However global funding sources are available to assist with the costs associated with adaptation. The Adaption Fund, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and The Special Climate Change Fund provide fiscal support for projects aimed at reducing vulnerability while increasing adaptive capacities to the adverse effects of climate change. This is generally achieved through technology transfer, economic diversification, investments in non-polluting, efficient and renewable energy and sustainable development with regards to energy, transport, industry, agriculture, forestry and waste management. For SIDS also considered to be LDCs, the Least Developed Countries Fund, established under the UNFCCC is also available with associated National Adaption Programs of Action. These programs of action combine sustainable development and adaption objectives, focusing on ‘water resources, food security and agriculture, disaster preparedness and risk management, coastal zone management and infrastructure, natural resources management and community level adaptation’.

Some adaptation programs are targeted at multiple countries (For example, the GEF-UNDP project “Piloting Climate Change Adaptation to Protect Human Health” and the GEF-World Bank project on Mainstreaming Adaptation to Climate Change in the Caribbean region ), while others are more specific in their application locality. In executing such adaption programs, it is essential the international intervention is sensitive to the local contexts and requirement of the target island state/s. Projects should ultimately aim to enhance national and region capacity for long-term sustainability and resilience in the face of climate change. Dependence on external assistance must be carefully avoided as with implementation of ignorant hence potentially harmful strategies.

Valuing traditional knowledge is a critical means of maximising the potential long-term benefits of projects and ensuring their suitability. For example, to assist food security despite erratic rainfall and cyclones farmers of Timor Island have developed their own varieties of major staple crops. Peru farmers provide another example, using an ancient irrigation draining system ‘waru waru’, or raised field agriculture, which makes it possible to bring into production the low-lying, flood-prone, poorly drained lands. The shallow canals provide moisture during droughts, drainage during the rainy season and also buffer against night-time frosts. The Zai technique in Burkina Faso also provides an example of a cost-effective adaptation measure to enhance productivity4. Farmers dig pits in the soil to collect organic material carried by the wind during the dry season, at the start of the rainy season farmers add organic matter from animals which attracts termite activity resulting in termite tunnels that can collect rain deep enough that it doesn’t evaporate, and thus increasing soil fertility. Incorporating local knowledge and practices into initiatives not only makes communities more likely to adopt adaptive strategies but they also have a greater chance of success due to being contextually appropriate.

To ensure benefit maximisation, initiatives should be applied on a community level. Local stakeholders and community members should be involved in all stages of the project to ensure all of their ideas and concerns are incorporated into the design and implementation. Local involvement will also enhance capacity building and self-sufficiency of target communities. Positive examples of this occurring include in Bangledesh where volunteers have been trained to help in cyclone warning, evacuation, rescue, first aid emergency relief and the use of radio communication equipment4. The Caribbean Climate Change Centre was also established through the Caribbean Planning for Adaptation to Climate Change project, allowing climate change concerns to be addressed locally.

Despite the efforts of such projects further advances in adaptation capacity and technology transfer is still required. For full realization of benefits, climate change adaptation must be addressed in conjunction with developmental activities. Disaster preparedness, land-use planning, environmental conservation, coastal planning, and national plans for sustainable development complement the objectives of enhancing adaptive capacity. Hence this relationship should be reflected through relevant policies.


Climate Change poses disproportionate impacts across the globe. While their greenhouse gas emissions are insignificant compared to other countries, the future viability or even survival of many Small Island Developing States is severely threatened.

High level emitters, especially developed nations such as Australia, therefore have a responsibility to reduce their contribution to Climate Change. Lobbying for such action is challenging for SIDS due to their international representation. SIDS are members of the negotiating coalition of developing countries, Group of 77 and China (G77/China). Unfortunately, some of the largest greenhouse gas emitters among developing countries are also members. Hence these countries present reluctance to reduce GHG emissions because of their development objectives. Further difficulties arise with members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) also being G77/China constituents. Short-term economic motivations of such countries would deter them from cutting greenhouse gas emissions, under the justification of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’. Continuing emissions from these large developing countries directly threatens the viability of SIDS and compromises their power in inflicting necessary change among high emitting developed nations. This variance between developing country negotiating partners therefore must be overcome, to protect the existence of Small Island Developing States.


The effects of Climate Change continue to augment with historic greenhouse emissions presenting now unavoidable consequences and action to mitigate excessive global emissions proving inadequate. In comparison to developed and other developing nations, the 51 Small Island Developing States contribute minimally to global greenhouse emissions, yet incongruously it is these nations that are projected to experience the greatest adversity from resulting changes in climate. These countries already endure water and food security and human health issues, with characteristics such as remoteness, limited resources and small physical size and population compromising their development, especially in a sustainable sense. Hence, these countries have a low adaptive capacity with instability in climatic events only going further their socio-economic issues and in some cases, the continued existence of such island states is seriously under threat.

Given their limited resources for action, Small Island Developing States require assistance from the international community in terms of both Climate change mitigation and adaption. With their low emission, SIDS have low mitigation potential. Hence, high greenhouse gas emitters must take responsibility to improve their environmentally hazardous practices for the global good. Financial and technical support can also be provided by developed countries to enhance the adaptive capacity and overall resilience of SIDS. Existing funding programs and frameworks should be extended and a specific fund for SIDS established (similar to the LDS fund), to achieve the necessary but exorbitant costs of adaptation. Most importantly however, international intervention must be contextually sensitive and employ local involvement and knowledge to ensure legitimate capacity building, resilience and self-sufficiency of Small Island Developing States.


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