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

Small Islands Five Years Later:
Where Do We Stand?

un logoIn 1994 in Barbados, over 100 countries adopted a Programme of Action to assist small island developing States in pursuing sustainable development. Now, five years later, at a special session of the UN General Assembly on 27-28 September 1999, delegates from around the world will examine progress since Barbados and discuss how the international community can boost action in support of island nations.

The following summary gives the situation for each priority area according to the chapters of the Programme of Action, as well as progress since Barbados and some of the recommendations proposed -- either at preparatory talks or in reports by the UN Secretary-General -- for consideration at the special session.

  • Climate Change
  • The situation: Small islands are especially vulnerable to threats of rising sea levels, as their populations are concentrated in coastal areas. By the year 2100 sea levels could rise by 15-95 cm, with a Abest estimate of 50 cm, if current trends continue, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) cites anecdotal evidence of islets submerging, burial grounds crumbling into the sea, salt water intruding onto farmlands and beaches eroding in low-lying nations such as Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands. The IPCC has estimated that the costs of new construction for protection against sea level rise in the Caribbean States alone would amount to US$1.1 billion. Moreover, building sea walls would seriously interfere with lagoons and coastal ecosystems.

    Progress made: Gauges for monitoring sea level rise have been set up in 11 South Pacific countries, funded by Australia. In the Caribbean, the tide gauge monitoring network for the Global Oceanic Observation System has been strengthened. Studies to assess where sea level rise is likely to have the greatest impact have been carried out on 12 Pacific and some Caribbean island nations. In 1997, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) gave a $12.42 million grant to small islands for adaptation to climate change. Most small island nations have ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Talks are underway on how small island nations can best utilize the mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol, which most have signed.

    Action called for: Draft recommendations urge the international community and small islands to continue to improve island capacity to respond to climate change. International support is particularly required to identify adaptation options.

  • Natural and environmental disasters
  • The situation: Small island States are extremely vulnerable to storms, the impact of El Niņo and other natural disasters. Hurricanes George and Mitch caused extensive damage in the Caribbean, $450 million worth in Saint Kitts and Nevis alone. Fiji and Papua New Guinea were among Pacific nations which suffered from severe droughts related to El Niņo. Tsunamis in Papua New Guinea following an earthquake killed over 2,000 people and destroyed homes and crops. Storm insurance costs in many island nations are prohibitively high; on some islands, insurance is simply not available.

    Progress made: The South Pacific Disaster Reduction Programme, which ran from 1994 to 1998, improved disaster management training. A special group on natural disasters set up in 1997 under the Association of Caribbean States is preparing a regional agreement for disaster management.

    Action called for: Draft recommendations call for further work on reducing the impact of El Niņo and natural disasters and on early warning systems. They also urge partnerships between small islands and the private sector to implement schemes to spread risks, expand insurance coverage and reduce premiums.

  • Waste Management
  • The situation: Small islands typically lack waste disposal sites because of a shortage of land and lack of capacity. High rates of population growth and increases in tourism are generating more and more waste. Because sewage treatment facilities are inadequate, poorly treated effluent is often discharged into the sea, seriously affecting the two main industries of small islands: tourism and fisheries. New regulations have proven ineffective because island governments have inadequate staff and resources to enforce them. Islands have little capacity to deal with the growing volume of toxic and hazardous wastes.

    Progress made: The private sector has become actively involved in recycling plastics, metals, paper and used oil in some small islands. Sanitary landfills have been built in Seychelles and Mauritius and are under construction or being upgraded in several Caribbean and Pacific nations. A number of countries, including Barbados, Jamaica, Maldives and Trinidad and Tobago, have secured donor support to improve sewage systems. SPREP is assessing the abilities of eight Pacific island nations to manage chemicals. The Comoros, Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar are improving their preparedness for oil spills with help from the GEF, World Bank and International Maritime Organization, among others.

    Action called for: National priorities identified in the Secretary-General's report include improving waste management systems, landfills and sewage systems; reducing the volume of waste; setting up port reception facilities for disposal of ship wastes; enacting and enforcing government regulations on waste disposal; and building long-term storage facilities for hazardous waste.

  • Coastal and Marine Resources
  • The situation: Two important coastal industries, tourism and fishing, both require management to avoid deteriorating or depleting the resources on which they depend. Common problems for islands include: beach erosion, often due to mining of sand and coral; and loss of shoreline, habitat degradation and marine pollution as a result of development. Small islands often do not have the capacity to manage fisheries in their exclusive economic zones (EEZs) C sometimes hundreds of times the size of their land area. Since the EEZs of small island nations equal about one sixth of the earth's surface area, improving fisheries management would help significantly to stem the global decline in commercial fish stocks, over 60 per cent of which are depleted worldwide.

    Progress made: Thirteen Pacific islands, with funding from the GEF, have prepared a Strategic Action Programme for coastal, watershed and fisheries management and have secured $20 million more to carry out the plan. Barbados has set up a Coastal Conservation Unit which has produced a draft coastal zone management act. The Forum Fisheries Agency of the South Pacific provided technical support to small island States for negotiation of the South Pacific Tuna Treaty with the United States. All small islands have adopted a strategy under the International Coral Reef Initiative, and most have networks to monitor the health of the reefs.

    Action called for: Draft recommendations call for:

    • establishment or strengthening of programmes to assess the impact of development on coastal areas and reduce land-based pollution;
    • policies to address fisheries problems, including illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing in small island waters, and strengthening of national capacity for negotiating fishing agreements and promoting commercial investment in sustainable fisheries;
    • regional coordination in monitoring fishing, including use of computerized vessel tracking systems;
    • community-based reef conservation and management, and initiatives related to alternative livelihoods such as aquaculture and eco-tourism, to build on the International Coral Reef Initiative.

    In preliminary talks, small islands have sought to reaffirm their right -- included in the Barbados action plan -- to restrict or ban the import of hazardous and radioactive waste and prohibit its shipment through island waters, consistent with international law. Some recommendations have sought instead to call on States to improve the safety of shipment of hazardous and radioactive waste and emphasize that the sovereign rights of small islands over their EEZs should be in full conformity with rights of transit passage and freedom of navigation under the Convention on the Law of the Sea.

  • Freshwater
  • The situation: Many small islands face serious shortages of freshwater, and have few options to remedy the situation. Surface water and groundwater resources are very limited, particularly on volcanic or atoll islands, while urbanization is both increasing demand and polluting supplies. Small islands are especially vulnerable to drought, low rainfall and saline intrusion. Developing water supply and sanitation utilities is both technically difficult on island terrains and financially unfeasible, given the small scale of island economies and the expense of importing all equipment. Demand on water supplies is also increasing for tourism and irrigated agriculture to grow market crops.

    Progress made: Pre-dating the Barbados Programme of Action, a major regional water supply and sanitation project began in 1979 in the Caribbean and in 1986 in the Pacific; both programmes continue under regional environmental and scientific bodies. Since 1994, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Meteorological Organization, GEF, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank have supported a number of projects on various aspects of improving water supplies and sanitation. UNDP has helped Cape Verde prepare a national water master plan and assisted Comoros in the delicate construction of wells tapping coastal aquifers. The Asian Development Bank is financing the set-up of water utilities in Micronesia. Bahrain has set up an action plan to protect freshwater resources and modernize the distribution network.

    Action called for: Draft recommendations call for improving assessment, planning and integrated management of freshwater resources.

  • Land Resources
  • The situation: Competing demands for very limited land need to be resolved in a sustainable way. High population pressure, deforestation due to logging or conversion to agriculture and resulting soil erosion are among key factors. Traditional land tenure practices make management difficult. Increased demands for cash income have led to greater production of export cash crops and inappropriate tourism development, with heavy impacts on the land.

    Progress made: Among national efforts, Grenada introduced a management scheme using a computerized land information system. Similar work was done in Trinidad and Tobago and Saint Lucia. The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States has asked the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for help in developing a land-use planning and agricultural zoning mechanism. Software for classifying land by use has been set up in Fiji, Tonga and Vanuatu. Samoa is awaiting approval of a new land-use policy. Soil conservation and erosion control programmes have been formulated in Jamaica and Barbados. National forestry policies are being established in a number of Caribbean countries with FAO and UNDP support, following a 1997 regional meeting. A three-year programme is assisting 22 Pacific island nations in forest management.

    Action called for: The report of the Secretary-General recommends continued movement toward integrated land-use planning, using regional sharing of expertise and international technical assistance.

  • Energy
  • The situation: The almost total dependence of small island States on imported petroleum for their commercial energy needs continues to cause severe imbalances in trade. Increased use of fuelwood, particularly in rural areas, has led to much deforestation.

    Progress made: There has been little or no progress in improving the availability of energy services. Use of renewable energy, especially solar PV systems, has increased in some small islands, especially in rural areas, but this has been heavily subsidized by government or donor agencies rather than developed on a commercial basis. The GEF provided $7.1 million to small island States for environmentally sound energy development; this has subsequently leveraged an additional $60 million from other sources.

    Action called for: Draft recommendations urge mobilization of resources, including from the private sector, to encourage energy efficiency and develop renewable energy, especially at the regional level.

  • Tourism
  • The situation: Tourism is an economic pillar of many small islands, in many cases contributing more than one third of GNP, but unless properly managed, it can damage the natural environment and unique cultures which are the main attractions to tourists. In the wider Caribbean, travel and tourism output is projected to grow at an annual average rate of 3.6 per cent in real terms up to 2005 and to create 2.7 million jobs. An annual average growth rate of 8 per cent up to 2005 is expected in Asia and the Pacific. Adverse impacts include marine pollution from hotel and ship sewage, degradation of coastal zones, stress on water supplies and local cultures, and substantial Aleakage of profits to foreign investors rather than local entrepreneurs.

    Progress made: Master tourism plans, regulations and environmental impact assessments have been adopted in a number of small islands, including Mauritius, Maldives and the Netherlands Antilles. Caribbean countries have set a joint strategy for sustainable tourism. In Cyprus, new economic instruments such as tax incentives are being used to improve the quality of tourism.

    Action called for: Draft recommendations call for regional and national environmental assessment programmes to address the carrying capacity for tourism, community-based initiatives, and mobilization of adequate resources from all sources to assist in sustainable tourism development.

  • Biodiversity
  • The situation: Biodiversity in small islands -- including many unique species -- is under threat from pressures of population growth and development, natural disasters and the introduction of alien species.

    Progress made: A number of small islands have prepared national biodiversity strategies and country studies under the Convention on Biological Diversity. A review of biodiversity in small islands was carried out by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. The Bahamas has developed a model Biodiversity Data Management Report and Plan.

    Action called for: The report of the Secretary-General calls for further international support to enable small islands to protect native species and their habitats, control alien invasive species and implement the relevant international legal conventions.

  • National Institutions
  • The situation: Small islands often lack effective national institutions to set and carry out plans for sustainable development.

    Progress made: Since 1994, many small island nations have established new national agencies or high-level policy-making bodies to set priorities for sustainable practices, although they often lack resources to enforce new legislation. In Micronesia, a President's Council on Environment and Sustainable Development has been set up. In Fiji, a National Environment Strategy has been formulated and legislation drafted. National commissions on sustainable development or the environment have been set up in Barbados and Mauritius. SPREP has coordinated the preparation of national environmental management stratagies in the Pacific region, with assistance from the Asian Development Bank, UNDP and Australia.

    Action called for: Draft recommendations call for renewed commitment by small islands to complete national sustainable development strategies before 2002, as agreed at the Earth Summit +5 session in 1997.

  • Regional Institutions and Cooperation
  • The situation: The limited resources of small island States and their geographic isolation make regional cooperation especially important.

    Progress made: In the Pacific, eight regional intergovernmental organizations have been set up to focus on particular aspects of sustainable development, under the umbrella of the newly established South Pacific Organizations Coordinating Committee (SPOCC). The Caribbean office of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), in collaboration with CARICOM, has served as the regional coordination mechanism to carry out the Barbados Programme of Action. In the African region, the Indian Ocean Commission has been actively engaged in implementation.

    Action called for: Further strengthening of regional cooperation, scientific programmes and training.

  • Transport and Communication
  • The situation: Transport and communications are the lifelines linking small island States with the outside world, but distance and isolation have resulted in high transport costs and limited options for many islands. Public and private monopolies, often by foreign companies, result in high telecommunications costs. The quality and frequency of international shipping and air services is largely beyond national control.

    Progress made: Since 1994, 32 out of 38 small island States improved their Ateledensity, or the number of phone lines per 100 inhabitants, with about 20 islands showing growth rates of 15 per cent or more. All small island States except Niue and Tuvalu have established connectivity with the Internet, although for most, access is limited to government institutions and larger private organizations. A number of Caribbean nations are using new communications technologies to develop information-processing centres for North American businesses, with potential for generating significant foreign exchange and jobs. Airport improvements have been made or are underway in over ten small island nations. In 1996 Caribbean nations, through CARICOM, adopted a regional market access agreement to improve airline services and encourage airline investment.

    Action called for: The Secretary-General's reports recommend that island nations give priority to improving rural telecommunications and take steps to move telecommunications monopolies toward a competitive environment. They suggest that international development partners should help raise funds for telecommunications investment and that the World Bank and regional development banks should increase lending in this sector. More investment is also needed in infrastructure for shipping and air transport.

  • Science and Technology
  • The situation: Most small island States lack a national scientific infrastructure and trained personnel to meet their needs, and often lose scientists through a Abrain drain. At the same time, traditional knowledge about sustainable development is dying out for lack of interest.

    Progress made: Several UN agencies and programmes, including UNESCO, UNIDO and UNDP, have projects to improve scientific training and technology development in island regions.

    Action called for: The Secretary-General's report recommends subregional cooperation among islands in science education and infrastructure development as the most realistic short-to-medium term strategy for building scientific and technological capacity. Island nations are encouraged to seek private domestic and foreign investment in clean technologies.

  • Human Resource development
  • The situation: With their small populations, island nations often lack the trained personnel to pursue sustainable development. The Seychelles identified lack of trained staff as the key factor preventing effective management of national parks. In Haiti, no scientists or engineers work full time in the environmental field.

    Progress made: In recent years, all but one of the small island States have made progress in developing human resources at the basic level needed for building specialized technical skills for environmental management. Cuba, Barbados and Mauritius have created centres or programmes to promote environmental training and public awareness. In the Bahamas and Jamaica, school curricula now include more instruction about environment and sustainable development. UNDP, through its Capacity 21 fund, has supported training in Pacific and Caribbean islands, including on environmental law. Japan allocated $57.8 million for 1994-1998 for upgrading education facilities in Pacific island nations.

    Action called for: Draft recommendations stress the need for increased emphasis on capacity-building and education. The Secretary-General's report suggests regional mechanisms for training, and use of distance education and the Internet.

  • Implementation, Monitoring and Review
  • The situation: The Barbados Programme of Action, as well as Agenda 21, stipulated that successful implementation would require provision of effective means including adequate, predictable, new and additional financial resources. In all sectors, national and regional efforts toward sustainable development have been constrained by limited resources.

    Progress made: Official development assistance (ODA) to small islands peaked in 1994 at $2.36 billion but then declined to $1.96 billion in 1997, reflecting drops in aid levels worldwide. Whereas in some developing countries, loss of ODA has been partially offset by increases in foreign direct investment, small island nations often do not have economies of sufficient scale to attract private capital. Many small island nations find it increasingly difficult to obtain concessional development finance because criteria often focus on their relatively higher per capita GNP without taking full account of their actual levels of development, their vulnerability or their capacity to generate adequate national savings to meet needs for large amounts of investment resources.

    Action called for:

    1. Finance. Draft recommendations include a reaffirmation that implementation of the Barbados Programme of Action will require additional financing. They urge that projects be identified for GEF financing and that the effectiveness of bilateral and multilateral assistance be improved through better coordination. Draft recommendations also suggest that donors give special consideration to the over 300 project proposals presented by island nations at a February 1999 meeting between small islands and donors.
    2. Globalization and trade liberalization. At preparatory talks, small island nations have sought recommendations for some kind of assistance, compensation or preferential treatment to strengthen their position in the multilateral trading system, but no consensus has been reached.
    3. Technology transfer. Draft recommendations, noting that small islands need access to low-cost environmentally sound technologies, encourage information-sharing, participation in clean technology initiatives, and public-private partnerships.
    4. Vulnerability index. In view of the usefulness of an index that would reflect islands' small size, environmental fragility, and susceptibility to natural disasters and economic shocks, draft recommendations suggest that the quantitative and analytic work on a vulnerability index for small islands be completed as soon as possible.
    5. SIDSNET. Small islands have been closely involved in setting up the Small Island Developing States Network (SIDSNET), the Internet site and listserve created by UNDP in response to the Barbados Programme of Action. Draft recommendations suggest that small islands should enhance their Aownership of the Network and that, with the assistance of the international community, they should address constraints to broadbased Internet access and encourage private sector involvement.
    6. International cooperation and partnership. Draft recommendations suggest that existing institutional arrangements within the United Nations system need to be strengthened and coordination improved to support implementation of the Barbados Programme of Action. More regional monitoring is needed, as well as benchmarks and indicators to assess implementation.

    Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information
    DPI/2062 -- August 1999 -- 5M

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