No island
is an island

Ronny Jumeau
explains how the existence of some small island developing states depends on what happens at the very ends of the Earth

Nothing could be further away from the tropical waters of most small island developing states (SIDS) than the sub-zero temperatures of the Russian permafrost. So why should we bother about what is happening at the frozen ends of the planet when, for example, the Pacific Ocean is reclaiming more and more of tiny low-lying Tuvalu by the year.

After all, Tuvalu, just 5 metres above sea level, is seeking to move its entire population of 12,000 to Australia or New Zealand, fearing that rising seas caused by global warming and an increase in cyclones caused by climate change will eventually swamp their homeland.

Well, it is precisely because the ‘king tides’ of Tuvalu are threatening to submerge the islands that we SIDS need to be even more vocal about the melting ice a whole world away at the northern and southern poles of the Earth.

As leaders of SIDS – the world’s smallest and most environmentally threatened countries – meet in Mauritius we should not confine ourselves to the expected chorus of complaints that the international community has not done enough to help us overcome our special vulnerabilities and make progress in sustainable development. We also need to speak out on what other countries are doing – or not doing – in their own backyards, even as far as the icy wastes of the polar regions.

In October last year I was in London for a presentation to members of the British Parliament organized by the Advisory Committee on Protection of the Sea (ACOPS), of which I am one of the African vice-presidents. Before the presentation, I attended a joint ACOPS-UNEP news conference to announce a $30 million clean-up operation in the Russian Arctic. This will rid it of toxic wastes and other pollution caused by decades of industrial and military activities ranging from mineral mining to the dumping of nuclear submarines.

The project will also deal with the large-scale release of methane into the atmosphere as global warming steadily melts the Arctic permafrost. Such a release will in turn speed up that very climate change, which is already running at twice the global rate in the Arctic. Methane is the most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere after carbon dioxide and contributes a very significant fraction of actual anthropogenic global warming.

I was asked at the news conference what interest an environment minister from a tropical small island state could have in the Russian project. You could not find, after all, more extreme opposites than giant cold Russia on the shores of the Arctic Ocean and tiny hot Seychelles in the middle of the equatorial Indian Ocean.

Yet the project document states that: ‘the role of the Arctic in influencing global climate [is a matter] of legitimate concern to all countries of the world [adding] a global dimension to a topic that would, at first glance, appear to be a matter of concern only to the Arctic states’.

And it adds: ‘The important role played by the Arctic in world ocean circulation, global biodiversity and planetary climate control is unquestionable. It is in the Arctic and Antarctic that any major change in conditions... will result in direct effects on global climate.’

A month before, we in Seychelles had taken notice when it was announced that the largest ice shelf in the Arctic had, after 3,000 years, broken up on the coast of Canada and drained a 32-kilometre-long freshwater lake into the sea. We have also never forgotten the 2002 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which concluded that global warming could cause the world’s sea level to rise by as much as 1 metre within just 80 years.

Such a rise would cause nearly all of Maldives’ 1,196 coral islands to disappear off the map, turning the entire population of 300,000 into refugees. Maldives is one of Seychelles’ neighbours, a mere two and a half hours flight northeast of us.

Serious stake
I duly pointed out at the news conference that low-lying island states like Seychelles have a very, very serious stake indeed in any potential environmental catastrophe in the Arctic – or the Antarctic for that matter. The melting ice and snows, the heat-trapping gases being released, and the increasing temperatures all contribute substantially to the changing weather. This results in warming and rising waters which are killing our coral reefs in the Caribbean and the Indian and Pacific oceans, eroding our beaches and – as in the case of Tuvalu and Maldives – threatening to erase whole countries from the face of the Earth.

‘We are all linked together: what happens in the Arctic affects us all on the equator,’ I said. This is why, for example, Seychelles and other small island states are among the loudest voices calling for Russia to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

Early warning system
I had hardly landed back home in Seychelles when scientists at the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University announced that another giant ice shelf the size of Scotland, this time in the Antarctic, was melting rapidly. It was releasing an extra 21 billion tonnes of water into the oceans each year, which could help change global ocean circulation and weather patterns. The warning came a day after a University College, London report confirmed a 40 per cent thinning of the Arctic ice-cap in the past 30 years.
We are all linked together: what happens in the Arctic affects us all on the equator
Interestingly, UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said at the same news conference that the Arctic was ‘the early warning system for the world’. The very same term has also been used to describe the small island states as, thanks to our smallness and special frailties, we will be the first to succumb to the major environmental problems afflicting the world today.

Our message to the international community at the Barbados +10 meeting in Mauritius should indeed be to do more to help small island developing states put things right at home. We should, however, also be more vocal in asking other countries to clean up their own backyards, all the way from the northern to the southern polar ice-caps.

We should not be so preoccupied with, or blinkered by, our own problems as to ignore what is happening in the rest of the world. When other countries mess up their parts of what is, after all, our same Mother Earth, they mess up ours too.

When the polar glaciers, ice sheets and snow covers melt, the small island developing states at the equator will be the first to be submerged. It is already happening in Tuvalu

Ronny Jumeau is Minister for Environment and Natural Resources, Seychelles.


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 Climate change, 1997
Issue on Climate and Action, 1998
Issue on Oceans, 1998
Issue on Small Islands, 1999
Issue on World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2002

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: