Small Island Developing States Vulnerable to Disasters

NAIROBI, Kenya, January 6, 2005 (ENS) - The Indian Ocean tsunami on December 26 that killed some 150,000 people and displaced five million others completely inundated many of the low lying inhabited islands of the region. Coming just two weeks before a major international conference on the fate of small island developing nations, the destruction points up the vulnerability of people and ecosystems on these islands.

Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said, "The tidal wave, with its appalling loss of life, reminds us in grim and stark terms of the vulnerability of coastal communities to natural disasters including small islands. Clearly, it is the suffering of the people and their urgent need for food, shelter, medicines and clean and sufficient drinking water that must be our number one priority."


Heavily dependent on tourism, the economy in the Maldives Islands was hit hard by the December 26 tsunami. (Photo courtesy Maldives Tourism Promotion Board)
"But when these essential needs are met, attention will turn to reconstruction and the impact of the tsunami on precious and economically important habitats such as coral reefs and mangroves as well as facilities such as chemical plants," Toepfer said. "UNEP is already working closely with the governments affected and has deployed staff in several countries including Thailand, Indonesia and Maldives."

The reports released by UNEP today detail the emerging issues challenging the health and wealth of the world’s small island developing states. They will form a basis for discussion at the conference on Small Island Developing States January 10 through 14 in the island nation of Mauritius.

Small island nations are counting on the Mauritius meeting to present their case to the international community, to seek partnerships and innovative ways to improve their situation.

More than 2,000 participants from the islands, their traditional donor partners and other countries, including some 25 heads of state and government, are expected to take part in the United Nations International Meeting to Review the Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, which was agreed a decade ago at a Global Conference in Barbados.

The December 26 tsunami will provide conference participants with tragic examples of why small island nations need assistance now. Eyewitness accounts indicate that some small islands have been harmed by the tidal wave.


The Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean are vulnerable to coral bleaching and fisheries depletion as well as ecosystem degradation. (Photo credit unknown)
Reports to UNEP by experts in the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources in Seychelles, suggest that corals recovering from a major bleaching event in 1998 have suffered badly.

"Juvenile fish death was high as these were thrown onto dry land by the tsunami. Some mangrove ecosystems were also affected," witnesses say.

High on the agenda in Mauritius will be the need for a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean like the one that has been in existence for some 50 years in the Pacific.

Toepfer said several governments have requested UNEP’s assistance, in collaboration with other United Nations bodies, to begin working on a feasibility study for a tsunami warning network.

"The international community is rising to the challenge of this appalling catastrophe. Let us hope that this spirit of solidarity with the victims and their families can be carried on beyond this tragedy, so that the existing and emerging environmental threats to small islands outlined in these new reports can also be tackled with the degree of urgency they too deserve," Topfer said.

The reports release today were written before the devastating tsunami, but they address other difficult problems that also need to be solved before these nations can reach their full potential. Remote locations, small and fragile economies based on tourism and a small number of exports, mean island people must work hard to develop.

Pollution and discharge by ships in the Caribbean, overfishing in the Pacific and the rising tide of household waste and other forms of waste on the Atlantic and Indian Ocean islands are issues than must be resolved.

Shipping in the Caribbean is emerging as a key pollution issue along the coastlines of many islands on busy maritime routes, such as between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Poor disposal of waste, especially containers, is also generating increased risk of malarial infections, especially in Madagascar and the Comoros. The containers, ranging from old plastic bags to paint tins, accumulate rainwater, which is an ideal breeding ground for the disease-carrying insects.


Severe storms such as Typhoon Nida that swept the Pacific in May 2004, disrupt the ability of small island states to solve their other problems. (Photo by Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory)
Both Mauritius and Seychelles have developed organized waste management schemes. Mauritius, for example, has established recycling facilities for materials including paper, glass, textiles, precious metals and plastics. Nevertheless, both these countries still have significant problems.

In the Comoros, collection and disposal of waste is "virtually non-existent and are often found scattered throughout the city and in both public and village areas," say the experts.

Some small islands, such as the Comoros in the Indian Ocean, are also facing serious freshwater shortages partly as a result of contamination and over exploitation.

Unique animal and plant species are also under threat from habitat clearance and the introduction of alien, invasive species from other parts of the world. Dominica and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean are small islands with high levels of potentially damaging invaders.

Rising sea levels combined with other extreme climatic events, such as more frequent and powerful hurricanes and new patterns of cyclones, are already causing major damage in many small island developing states, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of 2,500 climate scientists from around the world.

UNEP has pledged to help, Toepfer says. Specific requests have so far come from Indonesia, which has asked UNEP to establish an environmental crisis centre, Maldives, which has requested emergency waste management assistance and impact studies on coral reefs and livelihoods, and Sri Lanka for environmental impact assessments.

Visit the official site of the Small Island Developing Nations conference in Mauritius at: