At a glance:
Seas, oceans and small islands

Small island developing states (SIDS) are perhaps the most beautiful group of countries on Earth. They are also among the most vulnerable – and becoming more so.

They are vulnerable on the environmental level. Cut off from the rest of the world, they have developed their own fragile ecosystems, rich in endemic species which are particularly at risk of extinction. Dependent on the oceans, they can be especially affected by such threats as overfishing and marine pollution. Surrounded by the seas, they are often short of freshwater: rainfall is unpredictable – what does fall often runs quickly off the land, and what remains is often prone to pollution. With little or no hinterlands, they are short of space for their wastes and particularly vulnerable to natural disasters like storms, droughts and floods, which are increasing with global warming. And climate change is also bringing perhaps the greatest danger of all – rising seas that threaten to make some SIDS uninhabitable, and to swamp large tracts of others.

They are also vulnerable at the economic level. They usually have few resources, and depend on just a handful of crops or industries. With little industrialization, they are particularly prey to the vagaries of world commodity prices. They are exceptionally dependent on strategic imports and economically penalized by their remoteness, and resulting high transport costs. And they have little clout in the fora that decide the rules of the world economic system.

Inevitably these vulnerabilities are intertwined. Many SIDS depend on tourism, but this is threatened by environmental degradation; up to four fifths of shallow-water coral reefs in some parts of the Caribbean have been destroyed. Some are reliant on extractive industries, like forestry or mining, which too often severely damage the environment. Most are seeing their vital fish catches level off or decline as overfishing affects the world’s oceans.

Twelve years ago, at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, world leaders resolved that SIDS were ‘a special case for environment and development’, and this was reaffirmed at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. Ten years ago, the world community, meeting in Barbados, drew up a Programme of Action for SIDS. Yet the promised support has not materialized. Aid has declined. So have commodity prices. And environmental threats have grown. SIDS are more vulnerable than ever, while their ability to cope with environmental or economic shocks has shrunk. The Mauritius meeting to review the Programme of Action offers a chance to reverse these trends, and to begin to enable SIDS to gain a strength to match their beauty.

Geoffrey Lean

Human Development Index for SIDS, 2003
Many SIDS score well on the Human Development Index, which measures how much their policies actually benefit their people. Most rank in the top half of all developing countries. Barbados has the highest score in the South, while the Seychelles and Mauritius head the list for Africa.

Official development assistance for SIDS (US$ billion)
Aid to SIDS has declined sharply over the last decade – falling by about a half in real terms. Meanwhile foreign direct investment has dropped in most SIDS since 1998 – and what there is has been largely restricted to investment in tourism and to purchasing utilities like electricity and telecommunications.

Trends in urbanization in selected SIDS (% urban)
The rapid growth of cities in many SIDS is making heavy demands on the environment. Waste builds up, causing problems for collection and disposal. Water supplies are polluted by sewage, or contaminated by salt as heavy use causes saline intrusion from the coasts. Air pollution, noise and congestion also increase, and poverty and unemployment concentrate in the cities.

Tourism in selected small islands, late 1990s
The numbers of tourists visiting many SIDS easily exceed their populations, and tourism is vital to their economies, bringing employment and foreign exchange. It accounts for over a quarter of the entire economy of the Caribbean, and employs 70 per cent of the labour force in the Bahamas. It will continue to be one of their few development options but, if not managed carefully, threatens to ruin the very environment that attracts the visitors.

Global sea-level rise, estimated and predicted
The very existence of some low-lying SIDS – like Tuvalu and the Maldives – is at stake as a result of sea-level rise. Long before vanishing beneath the waves they would become uninhabitable, as salt contaminated their freshwater, and storms sent waves sweeping over them. Yet they contribute less to greenhouse gas emissions than any other group of nations.

Natural disasters in selected SIDS, first nine months of 2003
SIDS are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, and these are increasing. Last December, for the first time in decades, the Caribbean was hit by a hurricane outside the normal season. This year particularly high tides have swept Pacific island states, especially Tuvalu. Storms and droughts are expected to grow both in frequency and in severity as global warming increases.

Number of endemic, threatened and extinct species, by SIDS region, 2003
Isolated in the oceans, small islands have developed a unique wildlife. In Madagascar, for example, over half the vertebrate and over four fifths of the plant species are endemic. But this wildlife is particularly endangered; virtually every one of the SIDS has species threatened with extinction. Islands were home to about three quarters of all the animal species known to have vanished forever.

POLLUTION ALERT: Coastal zones starved of oxygen
Dead zones are increasing in the world’s seas; the number of those known – now 146 – has doubled since 1990. Pollution – associated with agricultural runoff, fossil burning and human waste – stimulates the growth of algae, which bloom and then sink to the bottom of the sea and decompose. In the process they use up most of the oxygen, effectively stifling fish, shellfish and other living things. Fisheries and biodiversity suffer.

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Into the mainstream | Creation’s forgotten days | Restoring a pearl | Stop my nation vanishing | Energy release | Oceans need mountains | People | An ocean corridor | At a glance: Seas, oceans and small islands | Profile: Cesaria Evora | No island is an island | Small islands, big potential | Small is vulnerable | Natural resilience | Books and products | Keeping oil from troubled waters | Redressing the balance | Neighbours without borders | Will Mother Nature wait? | Pacific canaries

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Production and consumption, 1996
Issue on Climate, 1997
Issue on Climate and Action, 1998
Issue on Oceans, 1998
Issue on Fresh Water, 1998
Issue on Small Islands, 1999
Issue on Transport and communications, 2001
Issue on World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2002
Issue on Energy, 2003
Issue on Globalization, poverty, trade and the environment, 2003