From 10-14 January civil society organisations and leaders of 37 small island states met in Port Louis, Mauritius. High on the agenda are discussions on an early warning system in the Indian Ocean to protect against tsunamis. Also on the agenda is the issue of rising sea levels, widely attributed to global warming. The decreasing levels of aid and Western trade barriers are also common issues.
Rising Sea Levels and Climate Change
A few months ago, four major hurricanes and tropical storms – Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne – struck the Caribbean islands (and southeastern United States), causing thousands of casualties in Haiti and devasting Grenada. This worst Caribbean hurricane season in living memory, along with other extreme weather events that took place in 2004 in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, are seen by many as empirical evidence of impacts that are harbingers of the expected effects of climate change.
Sea levels are currently rising at about two millimetres a year, but there are sign this rate may be increasing. Rising seas could swamp countries like the Maldives and Tuvalu. While the fate of small island nations is at risk, developed countries also stand to lose. Many cities around the world are located near coasts. Flooding from rising sea levels could cause massive damage to infrastructure.
Mike MacCracken, chief scientist for climate change programmes at the Climate Institute, a Washington think-tank, said "It's often presented as a problem only for developing nations. (But) developed countries will be very much at risk because so much infrastructure is at sea level."
Flood Barriers proposal for London
The city of London is already considering proposals for a ten-mile barrier across the River Thames to prevent it flooding. Scientists believe without such a barrier Westminster may be inundated in 6 feet of flood water. Jim Hall, of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, an author of the proposals, said: "We wanted to look at the more extreme but still plausible scenarios for sea level rise. The chances of these happening are small but the consequences are so dramatic that we have to prepare for them."
The proposal is for a vast embankment, from Sheerness in Kent to Southend on the other side of the estuary in Essex. The barrier would contain gates to allow water to flow in and out of the Thames Estuary according to the tides. But the gates would be shut if a flood seemed likely.
Coastal areas like the east coast of North America and particularly Florida are vulnerable to rising sea levels. A Satellite photo from NASA/JPL gives a dramatic demonstration of how Florida's low topography, especially along the coastline, make it especially vulnerable to flooding associated with storm surges.
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicated that the global average sea level has risen by 10 to 20 cm over the past 100 years. This represents a rate of increase of 1 to 2 mm per year, i.e. some 10 times faster than the rate observed for the previous 3,000 years. It also projected a global average temperature increase of 1.4-5.8°C, and a consequential rise in global mean sea level of 9-88 cm, by the year 2100.
Flooding could cause billions of dollars of damage around the world. In Bangladesh, 17 million people live less than one metre (three feet) above sea level.
Tuvalu inundated by King Tides
In February 2004, the nine islands of the low-lying atoll of Tuvalu were submerged by "king tides" with peaks approaching three metres. These tides washed over the lowest points of that nation, whose highest point is only 4.5 metres (15 feet) above sea level, affecting freshwater sources and damaging food crops. According to its inhabitants, such king tides, once rare for the islands, now occur roughly every two years. The worst flooding happened in 2001, when practically all the entire land area of these islands was under water.
Small Island Developing States (SIDS) meet
In Mauritius on January 10, civil society groups called for greater action from the international community to address the special needs of Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Advocacy groups raised concern over the lack of progress in the implementation of the Barbados Programme of Action (BPoA), agreed at the first such conference a decade ago. Aid to 45 states has fallen by more than half in eight years, leaving them increasingly vulnerable to external shocks.
Coordinator of the Civil Society Forum, Pynee Chellapermal, told journalists the calamity that had befallen Asia in December was an "eye-opener" for the international community to the "fragility" of small island countries, and it was "critical" that donors pledged their support to the development of an early warning system. But other concerns were also stressed including the "dearth of resources, poor human and institutional capacity" and the "lack of technology transfer" were also to blame for chronic underdevelopment.
"Our environmental concerns have a lot to do with poverty: for example, the lack of fresh water doesn't have anything to do with the quantity of rain we receive annually - we just do not have the resources to harness the rain when it does fall," said Mohammend Amidou, president of the Comoran Association for Environmental Development. In some parts of the Comoros archipelgo less that 10 percent of the population had access to safe drinking water.
At the formal International Meeting of SIDS environmental vulnerabilities were discussed. Delegates focused on: early warning systems; destruction of coral reefs and mangrove forests; concerns with linking climate change and extreme events; provision of financial resources for early warning; GEF’s role in renewable energy projects in SIDS; capacity building; pre-disaster action; climate mitigation; information and education; earth observation technologies; climate monitoring networks and systems; international cooperation; socioeconomic impacts of climate change; partnerships; and sharing of new technologies.
Trade and Development are also major topics of discussion. Representatives from several Small Island Developing States (SIDS) highlighted that over the past decade trade liberalisation had severely battered their fragile economies. Participants appealed for "special" treatment for their exports, which would compensate for the high economic costs resulting from their remoteness and smallness.
Grassroots discussions and workshops
Alongside the United Nations sponsored meeting of leaders there were more grassroots events: the Community Vilaj and Civil Society Forum (6-9 January 2005). The latter, organized to establish the accomplishments and shortcomings of the Barbados Program of Action of 1994, saw the participation of 2,000 delegates from all over the world, including 25 heads of State. There has been some criticism that accomplishment of the objectives of the civil society forum has been hindered by a lack of consensus and optimization of resources.
The Community Vilaj, which goes by the motto, "Local voices, global impact", regroups people who have reduced poverty with ecofriendly projects in their towns or villages. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), has enabled many to attend to maintain continuity of their projects through the exchange of ideas and experience on a wide range of environmental and social subjects.
There is also an Island Innovations Fair on Resilience Building Technologies and an Institute@SIDS, which is a joint initiative of the UNDP and the Smithsonian Institution, offering free training courses to Vilaj’s participants.
The Innovations Fair exhibits sustainable development technologies that "directly address specific economic and environmental vulnerabilities of SIDS". An example of such innovative technology is the Uehara Cycle presented by the Institute of Ocean Energy of Japan’s Saga University. The Uehara Cycle, which uses Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) to convert the temperature difference between the warm surface seawater and the cooler water at a depth of 800 metres into electricity, is seen as a solution to both the precariousness of energy supplies on islands and global warming.
Follow the SIDS negotiations at the Earth Negotiations Bulletin or at the United Nations Small Islands Big Stakes website
* Reuters 11 Jan05 - MAURITIUS: Call for action over survival of small islands
* Times of Tibet 7 Jan05 - Climate Change as a Human Rights Issue for Subsistence-Based Societies
* The Times - 11 Jan05 - Biggest engineering feat to stop Thames flood
* lexpress.mu 11 Jan05 - Grassroots approach to challenges for SIDS
* United Nations - Small Islands Big Stakes
Rescued from Melbourne Indymedia via the Web archive