7 January 2005

Natural, Man-Made Disasters Threaten Stability of Small Island Developing States

(Reissued as received.)

LONDON/NAIROBI, 6 January (UNEP) -- Vulnerability to natural and man-made disasters including tsunamis and cyclones is among a range of emerging issues challenging the health and wealth of the world’s small island developing States.

Other issues include pollution and discharge by ships in the Caribbean, over-fishing in the Pacific and the rising tide of household and other forms of waste on the Atlantic and Indian Ocean islands.

Some small islands, such as the Comoros in the Indian Ocean, are also facing serious freshwater shortages partly as a result of contamination and over-exploitation.

Unique animal and plant species are also under threat from habitat clearance and the introduction of alien, invasive species from other parts of the world. Dominica and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean are small islands with high levels of potentially damaging ‘invaders’.

These are among the findings from reports released today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in advance of an international meeting on small island developing States taking place 10 to 14 January in Mauritius (see note to editors).

The reports were written before the devastating tsunami, which hit coastal areas and small islands in the Indian Ocean on 26 December 2004.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: “The tidal wave, with its appalling loss of life, reminds us in grim and stark terms of the vulnerability of coastal communities to natural disasters including small islands. Clearly, it is the suffering of the people and their urgent need for food, shelter, medicines and clean and sufficient drinking water that must be our number one priority”.

“But when these essential needs are met, attention will turn to reconstruction and the impact of the tsunami on precious and economically important habitats such as coral reefs and mangroves, as well as facilities such as chemical plants. UNEP is already working closely with the governments affected and has deployed staff in several countries including Thailand, Indonesia and Maldives”, he said.

Specific requests have so far come from Indonesia, which has asked UNEP to establish an environmental crisis centre; Maldives, which has requested emergency waste management assistance and impact studies on coral reefs and livelihoods; and Sri Lanka for environmental impact assessments.

Eye-witness accounts indicate that some small islands have been heavily affected by the tidal wave. For example, reports given to UNEP by experts in the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources in Seychelles, suggests that corals recovering from a major bleaching event in 1998 have suffered badly.

“Juvenile fish death was high as these were thrown onto dry land by the tsunami. Some mangrove ecosystems were also affected”, they said.

High on the agenda in Mauritius will be the need for a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean mirroring one that has been in existence for some 50 years in the Pacific.

Mr. Toepfer said several governments had requested UNEP’s assistance, in collaboration with other United Nations bodies, to begin working on a feasibility study for such a network.

“The international community is rising to the challenge of this appalling catastrophe. Let us hope that this spirit of solidarity with the victims and their families can be carried on beyond this tragedy, so that the existing and emerging environmental threats to small islands outlined in these new reports can also be tackled with the degree of urgency they too deserve”, he added.

The reports have been produced by UNEP’s Division of Early Warning and Assessment and UNEP’s Global International Waters Assessment based at the University of Kalmar, Sweden.

The reports make it clear that, in terms of vulnerability, small island developing States represent a special category of countries.

This vulnerability is as a result of their often remote locations, small and fragile economies based on tourism and a small number of exports, heavy dependence on fossil fuel imports and limited availability of natural resources including land and water.

In addition, many of these islands are low-lying, making them vulnerable to rising sea levels, storm surges and dramatic weather events like the Indian Ocean tsunami. Climate change, with its anticipated increase in extreme weather events and rising sea levels, is set to aggravate the problem.

The case of Grenada in the Caribbean highlights the threat. In September 2004, the island was hit by hurricane Ivan. Nearly 90 per cent of houses were damaged along with schools, hospitals and infrastructure such as roads. The banana industry was demolished and over 90 per cent of the forest lands and watersheds are stripped of vegetation.

Total costs have been estimated at $3 billion or more than double Grenada’s gross domestic product.

According to estimates by Munich Re, one of the world’s biggest re-insurance companies and a member of UNEP’s Finance Initiative, weather-related disasters are on the rise. In the first 10 months of 2004, insured losses amounted to some $35 billion -- the largest loss ever -- with uninsured losses some $90 billion.

Atlantic and Indian Ocean Small Island Developing States

While tsunamis have emerged as a massive new threat to the region, the reports highlight others.


One of “the most critical issues for the States in the region is the growing problem of solid waste”, say the reports.

Impacts include pollution of precious groundwater, surface waters and wetlands and degradation of coastal environments, including coral reefs and tourist attractions such as beaches.

Poor disposal of waste, especially containers, is also generating increased risk of malarial infections especially in Madagascar and the Comoros. The containers, ranging from old plastic bags to paint tins, accumulate rainwater, which is an ideal breeding ground for the disease-carrying insects.

Both Mauritius and Seychelles have developed organized waste management schemes. Mauritius, for example, has established recycling facilities for materials including paper, glass, textiles, precious metals and plastics. Nevertheless, both these countries still have significant problems.

In the Comoros, collection and disposal of waste is “virtually non-existent and are often found scattered throughout the city and in both public and village areas”, say the experts.

In Madagascar, only 6 per cent of rubbish and wastes are routinely collected. Over half the population dispose of their waste “anywhere convenient”, including on or near beaches and in mangrove swamps.

Caribbean Small Island Developing States -- Shipping

Shipping in the Caribbean is emerging as a key pollution issue along the coastlines of many islands on busy maritime routes, such as between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Other factors contributing to this high density of shipping are the presence of major oil producing and exporting countries within the wider Caribbean such as Colombia, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States and Venezuela.

Most of the islands in the region are also heavily dependent on oil imports themselves with 90 per cent of the energy used in the region derived from crude oil.

The region is also an increasingly popular cruise ship destination with 14.5 million cruise passengers visiting Caribbean ports in 2000, up by 47 per cent from 1995. Nearly 60 per cent of the world’s cruise ship passengers visit the Caribbean.

It is estimated that a typical cruise ship with 3,000 passengers generates each day between 400 and 1,200 cubic metres of watery waste including drainage from dishwashers, laundry, showers and washbasins along with grease, medical and dental waste.

An estimated 70 litres of hazardous waste, including photo processing chemicals, paints, solvents, laser printer cartridges, nickel cadmium batteries and dry cleaning fluids, are also generated each day.

Shipping can damage the environment as a result of accidents in which oil and other wastes are released or as a result of irresponsible actions by ship owners and captains.

Apart from oil, other wastes including sewage, plastics, paper, glass, toxic substances, such as the anti-fouling paint tributyltin (TBT), are entering the waters of the Caribbean with impacts on people, wildlife, coral reefs and scenic beauty that attract tourists in the first place.

Pacific Small Island Developing States – Over-Fishing

“Unsustainable exploitation of fish is universal throughout the region”, say the researchers who cite various factors including lack of regulation of subsistence fishing and western-style fisheries management for some of the harm.

Fish is a critical part of the diet of many Pacific islanders with consumption on Kiribati as high as 200 kg per person annually.

A similar picture emerges across the region with subsistence fishing accounting for 95 per cent of the catch in the Northern Marianas, 94 per cent in Samoa, 90 per cent in the Federated States of Micronesia and in the Solomon Islands and also 90 per cent in Niue.

Vanuatu is a case study of where over-fishing has resulted in a sharp decline in catches. Here the catch has declined from 90,000 tons in 1999 to less than 30,000 in 2001.

In some islands the decline in coastal and reef-living stocks has forced many islanders to switch to often imported less nutritious foods such as mutton flaps, turkey tails, tinned fish and corned beef, resulting in a “deterioration of health and increases in non-communicable diseases”.

The demand for fish products, including sea cucumbers, shrimp, oysters and seaweeds in South-East and East Asia, is likely to intensify the pressure on Pacific island marine resources unless action is taken to make fishing more sustainable.

Smoking of sea cucumbers, also known as beche-de-mer, can be particularly damaging to local forests with 10 tons of wood needed to smoke one ton of catch.

Fisheries beyond the coastal waters, for species such as skip-jack tuna, are considered to hold significant potential for future long-term economic development including providing funds for environmental improvements.

Note to Editors

Separate, more detailed, press releases on each of the regions are available at www.unep.org.

The “Atlantic and Indian Ocean Environment Outlook 2004”; “Caribbean Environment Outlook 2004” and “Pacific Islands Environment Outlook 2004” are also available at www.unep.org.

“Caribbean Islands: GIWA Regional Assessment 4” and “Caribbean Sea/Small Islands: GIWA Regional Assessment 3a”; “Indian Ocean Islands: GIWA Regional Assessment 45b” and “Pacific Islands: GIWA Regional Assessment 62” are also available at www.unep.org.

Details on the International Meeting to Review the Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States taking place in Mauritius 10 to 14 January 2005 are at http://www.un.org/smallislands2005/ and http://www.sidsmauritius2005.mu/.

For more information, please contact: Eric Falt, Spokesman/Director UNEP Division of Communications and Public Information, on tel.: +254-20-623292, e-mail: eric.falt@unep.org; or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, on tel.: +254-20-623084, mobile: +254-733-632755, e-mail: nick.nuttall@unep.org.

* *** *