22nd Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGASS) on Small Island Developing States
New York, 27-28 September 1999

Press Kit on Small Islands: Issues and Actions

Trouble in Paradise:
Small Islands Struggle to Preserve Environments

un logoFor the sun, sand and surf, tourists see small island nations as a little corner of paradise. But the very development which brings tourists and business to small islands is exacting a high toll on their environments, spoiling the natural wealth which makes them so attractive.

Small island nations, like all countries, are seeking the right balance between economic development and environmental protection, called Asustainable development. But because of the islands' smallness and isolation, which seriously limit their options, and their vulnerability to storms and economic shocks, the problems they confront are particularly challenging and often call for solutions that are well beyond their means to provide.

Recognizing this, in 1994 the United Nations held a Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, hosted by Barbados. Over 100 countries adopted an action plan to guide island nations and their donor partners in putting the small islands on a better track. Now, five years later, the United Nations is holding a special session of its General Assembly in New York on 27-28 September to assess progress and boost support for the islands.

Some difficulties the islands face are global problems requiring global solutions, such as climate change and shipment of hazardous and radioactive waste through their waters. Small island nations are doing what they can: signing onto the appropriate treaties and lobbying the world's governments through the 40-nation Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).

Local environmental problems, such as pollution, population pressure, and natural resource management and conservation require local action, and the small islands have, individually and as a group, embarked on a number of programmes to promote sustainable development. But despite good intentions, because resources are limited, the ability of the small islands to implement these programmes often falls short.

Rising Temperatures, Rising Seas

Climate change and sea-level rise, which may well pose the greatest potential threats to the small islands, are problems far beyond the small islands' control. In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - a group of 2,500 leading scientists coordinated by the United Nations - concluded that there had been between a 0.3 and 0.6 ー -- rise in the mean surface temperature of the Earth since the late nineteenth century. It also found considerable evidence that human activities, such as burning petroleum, might be contributing to these changes.

A generalized warming trend could lead to higher sea levels - since water expands when heated and polar regions would melt - with possibly disastrous consequences for small islands. While scientists are still uncertain how much sea level might rise - IPCC projections range between 15 and 95 cm (6 and 37 inches) as soon as the year 2100, with a best estimate of 50 cm (20 inches) - the problem is of acute concern to small islands, which are particularly vulnerable since most of their population lives in the coastal zones.

There have already been reports of extensive coastal erosion on many islands. The South Pacific Regional Environment Programme, a regional group, contends that rising sea levels have already swamped several Amotu or small islets in Kiribati and Tuvalu, destroyed coastal roads and bridges, and caused traditional burial places to crumble into the ocean. In the Indian Ocean, countries such as the Maldives have expressed fears that almost 80 per cent of its atolls, which barely rise above sea level, could be completely inundated; and on the Seychelles, it is estimated that a 100 cm (39 inch) rise would erase 70 per cent of its land mass.

The IPCC estimated that global warming could force developing countries to spend about 0.43 per cent of their gross domestic product to adapt to climate changes. It also found that Caribbean island states could be forced to spend almost $1.1 billion on new construction to protect against sea-level rise.

Climate change may affect small islands in other ways as well. Temperature changes along with altered wind and rainfall patterns have already created uncommon drought conditions in some Indian Ocean and Pacific islands, although this may be partly related to the recent El Niņo phenemenon.

Small island developing States have concentrated their efforts on lobbying the major industrial countries to curb emissions of the greenhouse gases that are blamed for speeding up the warming process. The small islands were among the first to ratify the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and are strongly in favour of its 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which sets legally binding emission limits for the industrialized countries.

One way the Kyoto agreement may benefit small islands is through its Aclean development mechanism, by which industrialized countries could earn credits toward their emissions targets if their government agencies or private corporations carry out emissions-reduction projects in developing countries. Details of the mechanism are still being worked out, but the island nations hope it could promote investment in solar and renewable energy, which could in turn lessen their dependence on expensive imported oil.

Oil, which tends to cost more in the small islands than in other developing countries, accounts for a large percentage of small island imports - for example, almost a third of all of Cuba's imports in 1995, and a quarter of the imports for the Bahamas. Fuelwood, which is also extensively used for energy, primarily for cooking in rural areas, puts additional pressure on forests and is not a long-term alternative, though bagasse, made from sugar cane waste, could be developed in some islands. Several non-governmental organizations have stressed the need to develop alternative, renewable energy generation sources, such as solar systems that can provide sufficient energy to run small appliances.

Protecting the Shoreline

Rising sea levels are not the only threat to the coastlines of small island nations. Many islands are already experiencing a loss of shoreline and beaches as a result of extensive mining of sand and coral to meet construction needs. On some islands, such as Barbados, the destruction of coral reefs has led to the complete erosion of beaches. And in the past, unchecked construction of tourism facilities -- such as marinas, jetties and artificial beaches -- along the coastlines of Malta, Mauritius, Seychelles, Cyprus and other islands has led to the degradation of fisheries, coral reefs, mangrove forests, sea beds and dune systems. Other threats to the coastal region come from poor land use, the destruction of mangroves and the discharge of agricultural, industrial and sewage effluents.

Several small islands have adopted plans and programmes for protecting and preserving their coastal regions. Cape Verde, Fiji and Kiribati are among those that have developed plans, while Barbados, which has suffered significant beach erosion in the past, has established a special government unit to manage the coastal zone. Virtually all of the small islands have signed on to the International Coral Reef Initiative to monitor and study ways to improve the health of the reefs.

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) has provided funds to 14 South Pacific States to develop strategic action programmes to conserve and manage coastal and ocean resources in a sustainable manner. These islands have received close to US$20 million to implement their programmes, with the GEF contributing US$12 million of the total.

Fishing, one of the most important means of livelihood and sources of food on the islands, has been threatened in some areas by depletion of fish stocks and marine pollution. Island governments have generally lacked the resources and training to monitor and regulate fishing practices -- both in inland waters, where local artisanal fishermen work, and in offshore areas, where foreign, industrial-size fleets often buy fishing rights. Worldwide, it is estimated that 60 per cent of all commercial fisheries have been depleted. Since the 200-mile offshore exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the small island nations add up to about one sixth of the Earth's surface area, better fisheries management in the islands would be a significant step toward improving global fish supplies. Small islands have relied heavily on regional cooperation, which has resulted in agreements such as the South Pacific Tuna Treaty with the United States.

Preserving Unique Species

Surrounded only by the seas, small islands are home to some of the most unique and diverse plant and animal species, a fact popularized by the evolution theorist Charles Darwin after his studies in the Galapagos Islands. Studies today indicate that the Western Pacific has the highest marine diversity found anywhere, with some reefs harbouring up to 3,000 species. The region is also home to more critically threatened species--110--than anywhere else. Large-scale logging, commercial agriculture, mining and other land-clearing activities have diminished many natural habitats. The most extreme example is Nauru, where phosphate mining has carved out the interior of the island and destroyed entire ecosystems.

Although subsistence farming still accounts for over half of all agriculture on small islands, economic and population pressures are forcing the introduction of more productive farming methods. Many fear that this will open the door to crops with foreign genetic make-ups that could overrun indigenous but low-yielding species.

Natural disasters also threaten biodiversity. Severe storms often have a greater proportional impact on the biodiversity on small islands than elsewhere due to the smaller land mass and smaller habitats. On Montserrat, a frog known as the mountain chicken is believed to have become extinct due to the acidification of standing water caused by the volcanic eruptions that showered the island.

Most small islands, often with assistance from the United Nations system, have taken steps to catalogue and preserve their biodiversity. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is helping small islands to review, manage and conserve their forests, while UNESCO is attempting to preserve the traditional knowledge of local biodiversity. Many countries are using strategies to preserve biodiversity that involve local community participation. Community involvement was an important feature of a coastal management plan in the Comoros, and in a project to protect marine turtles in the South Pacific.

In the Bahamas, made up of 35 major islands covering an area of 100,000 square miles, a project to manage biodiversity data has resulted in a governmental commission that is responsible for coordinating and monitoring environmental and biodiversity activities.

Too often, however, the efforts of international agencies and local governments in the field of small island biodiversity are hamstrung by a lack of resources, a lack of coordination between different organizations, and a lack of integration with other national programmes.

No Room for Expansion

Islands by their very nature are limited in size, and the amount of land available for farming on the small islands is relatively small. Growing populations are forcing more people to compete for this limited land, and the result has been severe land degradation on many small islands. Almost three quarters of the Pacific islands have cited land degradation as a serious problem.

There is very little unused good arable land available in Fiji and Samoa, and subsistence farmers have been forced to use marginal lands, where the soil is poorer, or hillside slopes. The problem tends to get worse in areas closer to the coast. Even in Papua New Guinea, where most land is not under cultivation, large plantations tend to farm the land intensively, also degrading the quality of the soil. Degraded land is less productive and causes sedimentation problems in rivers and streams, particularly near the coastal zones.

The continuing loss of forest cover on the small islands is also a cause for concern. Population pressures, the elimination of traditional land controls, pasture development and logging are among the factors that have hastened forest destruction. In the Pacific, extensive logging operations have deforested large tracts of land in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and forests are also under siege in the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Samoa and Tonga. In Micronesia, aerial photographs indicate that only 15 per cent of the island of Pohnpei still has undisturbed forests, down from 42 per cent in 1976. In the Caribbean, where many forests were originally cleared for sugar and banana plantations, those existing now tend to be secondary forests, which lack the rich biodiversity of old-growth forests.

Waste management is also a major problem on small islands, since there is limited space for landfill, and contamination of the groundwater and surface and ocean waters results from sewage, industrial effluents and agriculture. Tourism also taxes the small islands' disposal and treatment facilities.

While many small islands have taken steps to manage their waste problem, most do not have adequate waste management plans. Some efforts have led to tangible results, such as the construction of sanitary landfills in Seychelles and Mauritius, as well as on several Caribbean islands. Barbados, Belize, Jamaica, Maldives, and Trinidad and Tobago have, with donor assistance, embarked on programmes to upgrade their waste management infrastructure.

The movement of hazardous and radioactive wastes remains a serious concern to small islands, who believe that the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal is highly inadequate. In talks leading up to the 1999 special session, small island nations have sought to reaffirm their right, as agreed in the Barbados action plan, to regulate, restrict or ban imports of hazardous waste and to prohibit shipment of hazardous and radioactive substances through their waters, consistent with international law. However, some industrialized countries have sought to soften the wording of the Barbados agreement.

Meeting the Challenges

Since 1994, small islands have adopted many measures and have created new government bodies to promote sustainable development and to implement the Barbados Programme of Action. The Federated States of Micronesia has established a President's Council on Environment and Sustainable Development and in Fiji, a National Environment Strategy has been developed and legislation has been adopted to carry it out. Barbados has set up a national commission on sustainable development that has representation from government ministries, the private sector and other civil society groups. Barbados has also established a working group on the management of hazardous wastes to develop legislation and safety guidelines for the transport, storage and disposal of toxic chemicals.

Mauritius has formed a national environmental commission, chaired by the Prime Minister, to coordinate efforts by government authorities and other organizations engaged in environmental protection programmes. In Cyprus there has been an effort to use economic instruments as a tool to upgrade tourism, as well as to encourage sound land-use practices and proper coastal zone management.

In addition, regional island groups have been active in setting strategies and carrying out region-wide projects to promote sustainable development, and international organizations, such as the UN Development Programme, have been giving support to national ministries and agencies that actually implement programmes.

Yet for the small islands, the prognosis is always uncertain. Although they have taken the Barbados action plan to heart, a major hurricane or cyclone can erase years of work in hours. At present, there are not sufficient resources to carry out all the programmes needed to ensure that the environment is adequately protected.

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information
DPI/2060 - July 1999 - 5M

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