Small islands, big problems

OUR PLANET 9.4 - Fresh Water

Small islands, big problems


outlines the special water needs of small islands

The issue of freshwater resources for small island developing states (SIDS) involves many of the problems facing developing countries in general, including inadequate resources, both human and financial. However, small islands also have unique physical, demographic and economic features, including relatively limited surface areas and natural resource bases (arable land, freshwater, mineral resources, conventional energy sources); greater sensitivity to natural disasters (typhoons, hurricanes, cyclones, earthquakes, volcanoes); and isolation from mainlands, all of which contribute to the vulnerability of their water resources. All these lead to the impact of the surrounding sea being more pronounced for small islands than for large islands and mainlands.

palm tree

Freshwater availability

Despite the relatively high rainfall received by many SIDS a considerable number experience freshwater shortages. Small islands frequently have a relatively limited capacity to store water for use in the dry season, and the construction of large reservoirs is often prohibited by the requirement to flood scarce land. In addition, torrential rains, coupled with steep topography, short river channels and easily eroded soils, can cause siltation of reservoirs, further decreasing storage capacity.

SIDS therefore depend heavily on groundwater resources which often exist as freshwater 'lenses' containing limited quantities of water. However, withdrawal rates that exceed the sustainable water yield can result in temporary or permanent sea water intrusion, thereby damaging or destroying the freshwater lenses. Given that small islands are surrounded on all sides by marine water, this makes saltwater intrusion into groundwater resources a problem of some magnitude.

Desalination of the surrounding seawater as a source of freshwater is an option explored by a number of SIDS, but existing technologies still make this a very costly way of supplementing the available freshwater.


Populations of small islands tend to be concentrated on the more gently sloping lands along a coastline. The resulting high population density can cause problems for the safety of water supplies which can easily become polluted by sanitation facilities sited too close to the source. In addition, the increased use of pesticides and fertilizers, as well as leachate from solid waste disposal sites, are additional pollution hazards to ground and surface water in many islands. This makes water supply and health a serious issue for many SIDS.


Opportunities for economic diversification in SIDS are often limited, and many depend heavily on international trade, including tourism, for their economic viability. At the same time, the successful promotion of tourism is strongly correlated with the quality, ambience and aesthetic value of the environment. In most cases, both amenity value and aesthetic ambience are related to the quality of freshwater resources, as well as the ecosystems they support. Despite its obvious economic potential, the development of tourism can also have negative impacts on freshwater resources, including high water consumption and a corresponding increase in the generation of wastewater.


There are often several organizations involved in, and responsible for, the various aspects of water resources. Data collection, health issues, service delivery, environmental management and other activities are generally delegated to different government agencies, many of whom rarely talk to or consult each other. In addition, their programmes are rarely integrated with those of other organizations whose activities may impact on water resources, such as tourism, land-use planning and human settlements. All these factors contribute to the absence of an integrated approach to water management.

Environmental protection

Lack of drainage basin controls or environmental protection, coupled with economic development (such as tourism, agriculture, industry) can severely reduce the spatial extent of the drainage basins that are vital to freshwater supplies. In the Caribbean region, for example, expansion of banana cultivation has reduced the relevant catchment area from which much freshwater is derived, as well as causing major erosion problems due mainly to poorly maintained roads and unplanned land development.

Banana man

Expertise and data

Effective management of water resources also depends on reliable and accurate data for addressing water problems and conflicting water demands. For many SIDS, however, these data are either missing or inadequate due to shortages of the expertise necessary to collect and analyze them. The population of many SIDS is simply too small to justify the establishment of advanced-level technical institutions to provide such expertise.

Further, many of the hydrological studies and investigations carried out on small islands are thus based on criteria and concepts more appropriate to large islands or continents than to the needs of small islands and water projects are often implemented without accurate knowledge of the available (and sustainable) water resources. Island-specific or, in favourable cases, regional studies are required to identify the available water resources and to implement effective development and management programmes.

Island Systems Management

The diminutive size of SIDS means that development and freshwater resources are closely related and interlinked. Water resource management must therefore seek to rationalize the use of island resources with the goals of sustainable development. An appropriate framework for this is provided by the Island Systems Management (ISM), which was developed by the Organization of the Eastern Caribbean States and adopted by the First Ministerial Meeting on the Implementation for the Barbados Programme of Action (held in Barbados in November 1997).

The ISM is a multi-disciplinary, multi-faceted mechanism offering an adaptive management strategy which both addresses the issue of resource-use conflicts and provides the necessary policy orientation to control the impacts of human intervention on the physical environment. The effectiveness of ISM is dependent upon an institutional and legal framework which coordinates the initiatives of all sectors, both public and private, to ensure the attainment of common goals through a unified approach.

Elizabeth Khaka is SIDS Focal Point, Water Branch, UNEP.

UNEP Support

UNEP's policy recognizes an urgent need to take action to support the sustainable development of SIDS, particularly through facilitating implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States. A number of opportunities arise through which UNEP is making efforts to assist SIDS to develop and use their freshwater resources in a sustainable manner.

Leveraging opportunities with the
Global Environment Facility (GEF)

The GEF supports projects related to the sustainable management and use of large marine ecosystems, including efforts at the regional level to facilitate the environmentally sustainable use of fresh and coastal waters and their living resources.

Assisting in the development
of sustainable tourism

With its Industry and Environment Programme Activity Centre, UNEP has provided assistance for the environmentally sustainable management of hotels. The experience thus gained will also be useful in the forthcoming UNEP/World Trade Organization Conference on Sustainable Tourism in SIDS, to be held in 1998. UNEP's experience with cleaner production also represents a significant contribution to their sustainable development efforts.

Strengthening environmental legislation UNEP's Environmental Law Programme Activity Centre assists SIDS in developing appropriate legislative frameworks for environmental protection. Human resource capacity has also been strengthened through global and regional training programmes in environmental law and policy.

Promoting appropriate technologies With its International Environmental Technology Centre, UNEP is cooperating in regional activities, including in small islands, to prepare regional 'source books' on appropriate and indigenous technologies suitable for augmenting existing water supplies.

Global Environment Outlook (GEO)

UNEP is preparing sub-regional state-of-the-environment assessments for small islands as a means of facilitating improved environmental agenda setting and planning for sustainable development. They will form a major part of the second report (GEO-2), currently in preparation.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Small Islands 1999
Simon Upton: Catalyst for common sense (Tourism) 1999
Cedric Schuster: Tradition matters (Oceans) 1998
E.S. Diop: The coast is the key (Water) 1996
Vaasiliifiti Moelagi Jackson: Water is everything (Water) 1996

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