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10 Things you Need to Know of Small Island Developing States

An Overview of Major Environmental Threats Encountered by Small Island Developing States


Hari Srinivas
Concept Note Series E-013. June 2015


Tiny, remote and low-lying in nature, small island developing states (SIDS) are typically dominated by richly diverse forest and coral-reef ecosystems that are particularly vulnerable to natural and human actions. In the past a sustainable balance between man and the natural environment of the islands was generally maintained. For the most part, island inhabitants were, dependent on fishing and subsistence farming.

Now however, many SIDS are faced with a myriad of environmental problems, primarily as a direct result of increasing demand for already scarce resources. Coastal marine systems are under threat from over-fishing and reef destruction, resulting from dynamite use and cyanide poisoning. Urban areas are suffering from problems of overcrowding and lack proper solid waste management procedures, resulting in the illegal dumping of waste on land and at sea. The extent of environmental degradation varies from island to island. Nations such as Papua New Guinea still sustain relatively pristine forest environs, however, the natural environment of other nations have been virtually destroyed.

Furthermore, increasing negative effects of global environmental issues such as climate change are placing additional pressure on SIDS. Predominantly low-lying and therefore, vulnerable to sea level rise, SIDS islanders are faced with the urgent need to establish realistic measures to protect them from environmental catastrophe.

Due to their small size and concentrated resources base, the effect of human actions in SIDS is more evident than in larger areas. The environmental problems SIDS encounter foretells what could be in store for the rest of the earth. The following section provides an overview of the major environmental issues experienced by small island developing states.

This document covers ten issues that constitute major environmental threats encountered by SIDS. They include - Climate Change, Solid Waste Management and Water Supply, Biodiversity loss, Land Degradation, Increasing Threat of Natural Disasters, Un-Sustainable Tourism Practices, Training, Awareness and Support, Endangered Species, Fisheries, and Toxic Chemicals.
1. Climate Change

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he extensive coastlines of SIDS are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, particularly since a majority of residents live close to, and depend upon, coastal areas for their livelihoods. Although, SIDS produce a tiny portion of greenhouse gasses, they are predicted to be the first to feel the effects of sea level rise and other climatic effects such as El nino or la ninia.

Strategies to mitigated sea level rise, such as early warning systems, urgently need to be developed. Furthermore, reliable contingency plans that deal with the effects of the loss of coastal and possibly in-land areas need to be established. Reliable monitoring measures (including geographical information systems, remote-sensing and other data/information systems) to gauge the state of the environment are also seriously needed.

2. Solid Waste Management and Water Supply

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apid urbanization has resulted in unsustainable production and consumption patterns on many SIDS. In general, urban populations are increasing, as islanders switch from traditional subsistence living to dependence on cash incomes. Poor sanitation, and water contamination arising from a lack of controlled planning practices are placing these populations under threat. Ground water supplies are contaminated by pollution from mining projects and open-pit dumping. Water shortages and inadequate water supply is a common problem on many SIDS due to an increase in consumption levels. Other factors including deforestation and climatic changes also contribute to water shortages.

Many SIDS are experiencing a growing demand for effective sanitation and solid waste management services. Such services are needed to protect island inhabitants as well as diverse island ecosystems. Negative impacts of untreated waste and sewage that is dumped into marine environments such as coral reefs are evident on many SIDS. A lack of proper solid waste management controls has resulted in unregulated dumping of solid and liquid waste into lagoon ecosystems in countries such as the Marshall Islands. Furthermore, littering is also becoming an issue on some islands. Finding abandoned vehicles strew-across the island is a common site on some SIDS.

3. Biodiversity loss

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IDS are dominated by tropical rain forests, wetlands such as mangroves, and coastal lagoons. Each of these ecosystems are storehouses for bio-diversity and significantly aid in water purification processes. Mangroves, in particular, play an important role, they act as nurseries for young fish and provide protection against coastal erosion and inland flooding. Biodiversity loss is occurring at a rapid rate on many SIDS. Habitat loss through the destruction of indigenous forests is the main cause of this loss.

In an effort to meet the growing demands of urbanization, forested areas are cleared for new housing and other development. Furthermore, commercial logging is heavily practiced on some SIDS and is a main source of revenue. In the case of the Solomon Islands logging has caused irreparable ecological damage. Initiatives to protect existing virgin forests and sustainable logging practices are highly needed.

The fragile coral reefs ecosystems that surround numerous islands are rich in diversity and of great importance. Reef ecosystems are put under high risk due to a combination of near-shore pollution and offshore over-harvesting. Bleaching of coral is causing further damage to these treasures of the sea. Reef ecosystems are increasingly undergoing bleaching due to unusually high temperatures that are possibly linked to global warming. Adequate coastal zone management plan are drastically needed.

4. Land Degradation

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egradation of limited land resources of SIDS primarily results from the over cultivation of vulnerable land and is major concern for many islands. In an effort to gain higher crop yields, aggressive cultivation practices, including use of chemicals and fertilizers, have been adopted. Old techniques, that allowed soil to fallow prior to planting, therefore, encouraging nutrient regeneration have been replaced with short-term measures that increase production.

New practices have resulted in a decrease in soil quality. Once lacking the necessary nutrients to support crop growth soils become unproductive and over time erosion occurs. Soil rehabilitation projects and traditional framing techniques should be promoted to regenerate cultivated areas. Another major environmental concern for the future of the islands is the steady reduction in forest cover in almost every country (except those that already have no forest left).

Forests are logged for local use or export; shifting cultivation and clearing for agriculture are constant pressures on the forest resource; and frequent uncontrolled fires eat into the forest margins in some countries. This not only represents the loss of a significant productive resource, but contributes to many subsidiary problems such as water shortages, soil erosion, and loss of habitat for endangered species. While many countries have tree replanting programmes, these have rarely been more than marginally successful.

5. Increasing Threat of Natural Disasters

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slands by their very nature are vulnerable to extreme weather events such as hurricanes, cyclones, floods, tsunamis and droughts. Many disasters result from natural causes however; human actions in some instances have worsened their effect.

For example, the deforestation of lowland forested areas typically decreases the amount protective vegetative that serves to guard against natural disasters such as typhoons. Furthermore, deforestation can result in an increase of surface runoff concentrations, resulting in flooding and landslides. Proper land planning practices and the use of forecasting techniques can better help to prevent the loss of life that disasters unleash.

6. Un-Sustainable Tourism Practices

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he striking natural beauty of many SIDS: beaches, coral reefs, tropical rain forests, mangroves, and the pleasant climate, has drawn tourists to these regions in droves. Tourism is currently a leading source of revenue for many SIDS. However, when not properly managed the industry can add significant pressure to land and water resources, and is significantly contributing to increased waste generation.

Many of the environmental problems caused as a result, calls for comprehensive destination management that is focused on sustainable tourism. This also calls for the active participation of hotels and resorts, local communities, municipalities, and the tourists themselves.

7. Training, Awareness and Support

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eed for national capacity building and technical advice. Many SIDs are a lacking in the amount of skilled personal able to undertake environmental planning and activities. Brain-drain is a common problem in SIDS - students stay abroad once educated allured by more lucrative salaries. There is a strong need for more training for government personal and need for more technological resources and know-how.

Local and National level management systems -- covering issues of governance, education and technology -- need to be developed and put in place. To maximize the impact of such systems, both formal and informal issues need to be considered.

8. Endangered Species

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he problem of the conservation of nature is particularly critical on islands where isolation has permitted the evolution of unique floras and faunas with large numbers of endemic species, while the small size of the populations increases their vulnerability. The demands of increasing human populations on limited land resources make it difficult protect natural areas even where the land tenure situation would allow such action. Steady habitat destruction, and competition and predation by introduced species further increase the pressure on native species. The situation on many islands is becoming critical as the area of undisturbed natural habitat diminishes. The result is a relatively large number of endangered (and extinct) species in countries where the scientific and financial resources available to deal with the problem are very limited. There are probably more endangered species per capita in small island developing States and territories than anywhere else in the world.

While a number of countries have made great efforts in setting aside protected areas, the needs far exceed the means. In addition, islands with limited land seldom can afford to create single purpose parks and reserves solely for nature conservation. Solutions need to be more flexible and adapted to island circumstances. Conservation areas which are created and managed by the traditional land owners represent the kind of creative approach to conservation needed in islands.

9. Fisheries

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he damage or destruction of productive coastal resources and fisheries is a nearly universal problem. Coral reefs are destroyed by construction or dredging, pollution, siltation and dynamiting or poisoning for fish. Mangroves are killed off by dredging or filling, or by changing essential patterns of water circulation and salinity. Seagrass beds are dredged or silted over. Modern boats and fishing techniques combined with increased fishing pressure have driven some coastal fisheries resources (such as giant clams, dugongs or manatees, and sea turtles) to extinction in local areas, and left others seriously depleted. Ciguatera fish poisoning has increased with damaging activities in coral reef areas, further reducing useable fish resources.

The result has been a steady reduction in the productive potential of coastal fisheries, one of the most important subsistence sources of protein, with a corresponding increase in imports of canned fish and other substitutes. The establishment of 200 mile exclusive economic zones has brought most of the ocean area of small island developing States under national jurisdictions. The principal concern in these zones at present is the management of the fisheries for highly migratory species, principally tuna, which can only be done on a regional basis.

10. Toxic Chemicals

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here is widespread concern about the potential dangers of the toxic chemicals being imported into islands in increasing amounts. Most governments lack adequate legislation controlling toxic chemicals. Pesticides or herbicides may be imported in bulk and then repackaged without adequate labelling, resulting in accidental poisonings. Chemicals brought in on a trial basis, or given on aid, may simply sit in a warehouse until the containers deteriorate and the contents spill out or seep down into the groundwater. Products considered too dangerous elsewhere are still in widespread use (and misuse) with no public awareness of the risks involved. Pesticides have been widely used in campaigns to control mosquitos and other insect pests with no monitoring of possible environmental effects.

On one island, a warehouse containing barrels of Lindane was swept into the lagoon during a hurricane, killing a large area of reef; on others, drums of arsenic were spilled into the harbour, and toxic pesticides like Dieldrin have been used for fishing. Spraying equipment may simply be washed in the nearest stream, which may also serve as a village water supply. Accidents with toxic chemicals are that much more serious within the limited environment of small islands but few island doctors have experience in identifying poisoning by toxic chemicals, so most incidents probably go unreported. Monitoring for chemical residues in foods and the environment has hardly begun.

Oil pollution is only a minor problem in those small island countries that are not near major shipping routes, although the Caribbean has a problem with drifting tar balls. Oil spills have generally been restricted to small harbour accidents during fuelling or transshipment, and to spillage of fuel oil from wrecks. Even small accidents like these could be serious if they affect critical habitats such as mangroves or major fishing areas on a small island, but most spills to date have either been on remote reefs or in the already disturbed environment of harbours. There is always a slight chance of accidents involving tankers delivering petroleum products to island countries. If a major accident does occur, island countries are very poorly equipped to deal with it.

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