Natural disasters and small island developing states: The case of the Pacific Ocean

Dr. Angelos Kaskanis
Dr. Angelos Kaskanis

Project Manager - Tactics Institute

Climate change and natural disasters pose a significant threat to small island states. Natural disasters have caused US$3 billion in damage to Pacific Island countries alone over the last half-century. Small island states account for more than 60% of the countries with the highest disaster-related losses.

Sea-level rise pose a significant threat due to the high concentration of people, assets and infrastructure in coastal zones. Loss of homes, human displacement, loss of lives and livelihoods, economic sector disruption, increased water insecurity, and disruption to key infrastructure such as transportation and communication are some of the human and infrastructure impacts.

Many of these countries are developing the tools, models and institutions necessary to withstand climate change while preserving their distinct cultures. However, because of their geographic isolation, limited resources and small economies of scale, most states struggle to finance and manage resilience.

‘Small island states are the most vulnerable when it comes to natural disasters,’ says Sofia Bettencourt, Lead Operations Officer at the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, adding, ‘Climate change magnifies the risk and increases the costs of disasters.’

In terms of hard infrastructure, the most commonly documented approaches for coastal protection include seawalls and breakwaters. While their primary goal is to dissipate wave energy and, thusl,protect specific stretches of coast (e.g., critical infrastructure and coastal assets) from erosion and damage, such approaches have trade-offs.

Disuption is caused by deflected wave energy, erosion and deposition patterns, potentially causing damage to unprotected shorelines and bottom erosion, as well as negative effects on marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

Climate Change

There is a high degree of certainty that small island states are particularly vulnerable to multiple and compound climate-related risks as global warming continues.

The Marshall Islands is a country in the north Pacific. located halfway between Hawaii and Australia. It has a population of 59,000 people and a land area of only 180 square kilometres, made up of 1,156 individual islands. It is one of the countries most at risk of extinction as a result of sea-level rises.

Artessa Saldivar-Sali, the World Bank disaster risk management specialist stated, ‘With a 1-metre sea level rise, we project that about 40% of buildings in the capital, Majuro, would be permanently inundated, permanently flooded. So that is a quite big impact.’

In addition to 3 out of every 5 buildings being permanently flooded, up to 96 percent of the city’s 20,000 residents face frequent flooding.

Even in the case of severe flooding, a disaster is not an unavoidable result. Flood disasters, on the other hand, are typically caused by a complex and ever-changing interplay of hazard, exposure and vulnerability.

In Honiara, Solomon Islands, for example, 21 people died as a result of flooding in April 2014. While this was an extreme flood, the tragic loss of life was primarily due to highly exposed houses and a lack of serviced land outside of the floodplain to accommodate arrivals, which was exacerbated in part by increased rural-urban migration.

Natural Disasters

The Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai undersea volcano, located about 65 kilometres north of Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island, erupted on January 15, generating an ash plume at least 30 kilometres high and 260 kilometres wide.

This once-in-a-thousand-year event triggered a series of tsunami waves that impacted islands throughout the country, with wave impacts in Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the entire western seaboard of the American continent (from Alaska to Chile). Tonga declared a state of emergency across the country, with at least three fatalities confirmed.

Stephen Ndegwa, World Bank Country Director for Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands, shared, ‘While a clear picture of the damage from this major disaster is yet to emerge, we know that Tongans are strong and resilient. Our team stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Tongans at this challenging time, as we will continue to do so in the months and years to come.’

The government of Fiji has pioneered a first-of-its-kind climate vulnerability assessment in an effort to adapt the country’s development strategy in response to climate and disaster risk. ‘We cannot achieve our development agenda without climate sensitizing and disaster sensitizing our development plan, says Vineil Narayan, Climate Finance Specialist with Fiji’s Ministry of Economy.

It’s been nearly two and a half years since Tropical Cyclone Winston made landfall in Fiji, killing 44 people and costing the country nearly a third of its gross domestic product. Tropical Cyclone Winston highlighted the threat that natural disasters, exacerbated by climate change, pose to the country’s development prospects for the small island developing state with ambitious development goals.

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