At a glance: SMALL ISLAND developing states

Secretary-General of the United Nations

Many of the world’s small islands are among its best-loved places. Their great beauty and rich cultures attract visitors from all over the globe. To many they seem idyllic places – havens of sun and sand set in clear, brilliant seas. While there is some truth to this it is not, of course, the full story. The world’s small island developing states are also on the front-line of the global struggle to protect the environment and pursue sustainable development.

The precious and fragile biodiversity of small islands is among the most endangered on Earth. The islands’ small size often severely limits their freshwater resources, capacity to dispose of wastes and ability to develop institutions. They frequently depend on just a few crops or industries. As custodians of vast areas of oceans, they suffer from the effects of overfishing. As leading tourist destinations, they reap not only the benefits but also the costs. They are especially vulnerable to natural disasters. And their very existence is imperilled by the sea-level rise brought by global warming.

Five years ago, more than 100 countries, meeting in Barbados, drew up a Declaration and Programme of Action calling on island nations and the international community to tackle these issues in partnership. Most small island developing states have taken positive steps since then, but international assistance to them has declined.

Small islands are microcosms for our world. We are all inhabitants of the global island, surrounded by the limitless ocean of space. If we can find solutions to the special vulnerabilities of islands, it will help us address more global problems. If we fail to do so, the interlocking environmental crises facing our planet today may well remain intractable. ‘Small islands, big issues’, was the slogan we used for the Barbados Conference in 1994. That sentiment remains just as true today.

United Nations SIDS listing and AOSIS members and observers
Cape Verde
Sao Tome and Principe
American Samoa
Cook Islands
Marshall Islands
Micronesia (FS)
Papua New Guinea
Samoa (ISW)
Solomon Islands
Antigua and Barbuda
Dominican Republic
Netherlands Antilles
St. Kitts and Nevis
St. Lucia
St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Trinidad and Tobago
U.S. Virgin Islands

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP

Mohamed T. El-Ashry, GEF

Small may be beautiful, but it is also vulnerable. The size and isolation of the world’s small island developing states (SIDS) make them prey to great economic and environmental pressures.

The population of the Pacific is growing at 2.2 per cent a year – faster than in developing countries as a whole; in the Maldives the rate is 3 per cent. Most are rapidly becoming more urban; three in every ten Pacific Islanders and six in ten people in the Caribbean live in towns and cities. Both trends increase pollution and pressure on resources.

Farming, cultivating crops for export, growing cities, new development and waste disposal all compete for scarce land. Seventy per cent of the drylands of the Caribbean are suffering from desertification, and land degradation is becoming a serious problem in Pacific islands too. Many SIDS have suffered from rapid deforestation. Above all, their fragile coastal zones have come under enormous pressures as people and economic activity concentrate in them.

Many SIDS depend on exporting just a few commodities, at most, and so are vulnerable to price swings brought by changes in the global economy. Their isolation means they pay more for their imports, and get less for their exports, because of the cost of transport. Their peoples and economies rely heavily on fish – they are custodians of vast areas of the oceans through their Exclusive Economic Zones – and so are particularly hit by the effects of overfishing.

Tourism has helped many SIDS to increase their income and diversify their economies, with widespread benefits. Yet it has also often caused social disruption, increased pressure on freshwater and other natural resources, created waste and pollution, and damaged the beauty which draws tourists in the first place.

Many island nations have taken new initiatives since the Barbados Programme of Action was agreed in 1994. These range from establishing national parks to new regulations on dumping wastes, from setting up new institutions to campaigning for international cuts in the pollution that causes global warming.

Cut off from the rest of the world, islands have evolved their own unique and rich wildlife. One in every ten of the world’s bird species live on only one island; more than three-quarters of the plant species of New Caledonia grow only there. This biodiversity adds much to the beauty of small islands, and their people rely heavily on it for their economic, social and cultural well-being.

Yet its very isolation and rarity makes it particularly vulnerable, both to human activities, such as felling forests and draining wetlands, and to other species brought in from outside. About three-quarters of the birds and other animals known to have become extinct – including the most famous, the dodo – lived on islands. One-sixth of all the world’s threatened plant species live only on islands. And the islands of Oceania now have more endangered bird species than any other region on Earth.

Tourism is an important and growing source of income and employment for many small island states. It accounts for over a quarter of the total economy of the Caribbean and provides a fifth of all its jobs, and is increasing rapidly in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Yet it also often spoils the very environment on which it depends, as mangroves and wetlands are destroyed for development, coral reefs are damaged by yachts and divers, and hotels discharge raw sewage into the sea.

Small islands have little space to put their wastes. Once these were mainly biodegradable; now, with modern products and imports, and the growth of industry, there is a huge range of them, from plastics to toxic materials – and they are expected to increase. Sewage is mainly pumped out to sea, without treatment, and pollution is increasing with the growth of population and tourism.

Coral reefs are among the richest and most beautiful ecosystems on Earth. A single reef can be home to 3,000 different species, while nearly one-third of all the world’s fish species depend on them. They calm the energy of the waves, providing vital protection to shores. Yet, it is estimated, two-thirds of them worldwide are being destroyed by global warming and other human activities.

Whole island nations, such as the Maldives and Tuvalu – which protrude only a metre or two above the waves – are endangered by the rising seas brought about by global warming. Already at least two small atolls in Kiribati have sunk beneath the Pacific.

Islands will become uninhabitable long before they physically disappear under the sea, as storms sweep over them more frequently and salt poisons the soil for crops and penetrates scarce freshwater supplies. Eventually whole peoples may have to leave their islands, and centuries-old cultures will disappear.

Even islands with higher ground will suffer enormous damage, as their people, industries and infrastructure are usually crowded near the coast. Yet though they will be among global warming’s first victims, the world’s small islands emit only a tiny amount of the polluting gases that cause it.

Their size makes small islands particularly vulnerable to hurricanes and other natural disasters, which have been getting fiercer and more frequent over the past decade. Insurance companies have been withdrawing from both the Caribbean and the Pacific because of the costs of compensation. Hurricane George in 1998 did $450 million of damage to St. Kitts and Nevis, a nation of just 45,000 people. Recently, devastating droughts have gripped Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and other Pacific islands.

Small islanders are particularly dependent on fishing. But catches in the Caribbean have fallen by nearly half since 1985 and fish stocks in the Indian and Pacific oceans are under increasing pressure from foreign fleets.

The United Nations reports that small island developing states have made ‘a great deal of effort’ to implement the Barbados Programme of Action drawn up in 1994, and have made ‘strenuous efforts to persuade the international community to take earnest and effective measures to arrest global warming’.

Many SIDS score highly on the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index, which measures how much countries’ policies actually benefit their people, such as through widespread education and health care. Barbados scores amongst the highest Southern nations, outstripping some industrialized ones, while Seychelles and Mauritius top the index for Africa. Other island nations with high rankings include Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas and Singapore.

PHOTOGRAPHS: UN Photo/M. Grant, Julio Etchart/Still Pictures, J.M. Pinto/UNEP/Topham Picturepoint, M. Manni/Topham Picturepoint, James White/UNEP/Topham Picturepoint, Arthur Wheelan/UNEP/Topham Picturepoint, Klaus Andrews/Still Pictures, Kassanchuk/UNEP/Topham Picturepoint, UNEP/Topham Picturepoint, Gerard & Margi Moss/Still Pictures, Andy Crump/Still Pictures, Caroline Penn/Panos Pictures, Penny Tweedie/Panos Pictures

Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Editorial M. T. El-Ashry | Let action... | The size of the problem | Looking good... | Vanishing islands | Whispers and waste | At a glance | Competition | Preserving paradise | Coral grief | ...biodiversity and beauty | Grassroots | GEF - helping small islands | Making a difference | UNEP - new books | Small is vulnerable | Measuring vulnerability | Exporting solutions | New friends in...