7 January 2005

Water Shortages, Global Warming Risks for Indian Ocean Islands

Tidal Wave Early-Warning System Urgently Needed to Reduce Vulnerability

(Reissued as received.)

NAIROBI/LONDON, 6 January (UNEP) -- Freshwater shortages and global warming are among the top concerns threatening the health and wealth of the small islands of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, according to reports released today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Even “rainy” islands like Seychelles are experiencing problems because up to 98 per cent of the rainwater is currently lost to the sea or through evaporation.

Modest investments in rainwater-harvesting systems could play their part in remedying the problem, experts claim.


The most water scarce countries in the Indian Ocean are the Comoros and the Maldives, which have per capita water availability at or below the water scarce threshold of 1,700 cubic metres per person per year. This represents a major and growing challenge, especially in urban areas.

The Comoros is right on the limit at 1,700 cubic metres with the Maldives, at just 103 cubic metres per capita per year, the lowest.

Precise figures for Seychelles, where most water comes from rivers, are not available, but water shortages were so severe during 1998, partly as a result of the very extreme El Niño event, that the brewing and fish canning industries were forced to close.

Mahe, which is part of Seychelles, is under increasing threat of water shortages as a result of wilt disease that is damaging a tree species, Pterocarpus indica, important for watershed management.

In the Maldives, the levels of groundwater are shrinking as a result of over abstraction and are now only a fraction of previous levels.

“In the Comoros, the supply is insufficient to meet current needs. This situation is expected to deteriorate in the future”, say the reports which estimate that demand in these islands will nearly double by 2025.

“Already scarce, water supply in Grande Comore, Moheli and Anjouan is threatened by the fragile equilibrium between freshwater and seawater, potential contamination of groundwater through seepage from septic tanks, substandard equipment and an insufficient number of water pumps”, they say.

Other factors likely to reduce the availability of drinking water include pollution from agriculture and wastes. In Seychelles, for example, high fertilizer use means that rivers have fertilizer loads of up to 25 kilograms per day.

Wells in Mauritius have high nitrate levels reaching 50 micrograms per litre, which is right on the World Health Organization (WHO) limits. Mauritius uses, on average, 57,500 tonnes of fertilizer annually representing 600 kilograms per hectare or three times that of Western Europe.

Water-borne and tropical communicable diseases are widespread as a result of contamination of water supplies by human waste. The Comoros, for example, suffered cholera epidemics in 1975, 1998 and 2001.

In Madagascar, up to 25 per cent of children can be affected during the rainy season. This is directly linked to water quality and sewage contamination.

In order to meet demand, Mauritius and the Maldives have invested heavily in piped water networks such that 100 per cent of their populations are now covered.

However, half of the water for consumers in Mauritius is lost due to leakages and it is estimated that the country will be classed as water scarce by 2025.

Meanwhile, Seychelles has been turning to desalination -- a process by which salt is removed from seawater. Mauritius is following suit.

“However desalination increases a country’s energy burden, and since all energy is imported, it thus affects its economic performance in the long term”, say the reports.

Existing freshwater shortages on many of these islands are likely to be aggravated by rising demand and climate change.

These are among the findings from a series of reports released today by UNEP.

They come in advance of next week’s International Meeting to Review the Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States (SIDS), taking place in Mauritius from 10 to 14 January 2005.

The meeting is also known as the 10-year-review of the Barbados Programme of Action for SIDS.

Tidal Waves

High on the agenda will be the need for an early-warning system to alert small islands and low-lying coastal areas in the Indian Ocean to tidal waves or tsunamis following the unprecedented disaster, which struck the region on 26 December 2004.

In the wake of the disaster, several countries in the region, including the Maldives have requested that UNEP begin working on how such a system could be got off the ground. The Asian Development Bank has also indicated that they are willing to finance a feasibility study.

The issue of such a system, mirroring one which has been in place in the Pacific Ocean for half a century, will also be high on the agenda at the Kobe World Conference on Disaster Reduction taking place in Japan shortly afterwards.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: “The most pressing issue for the countries hit by this devastating tidal wave is to relieve the suffering by the rapid deployment of humanitarian aid. Food, shelter and medicines, alongside the provision of water and power supplies, must be among the priorities. When these are in place, we can also assess the environmental impacts such as contamination of land and damage to coral reefs, mangrove swamps and other important coastal habitats.”

“The issue of an Indian Ocean early-warning system for tsunamis must be urgently addressed, and we have already been asked by some of the governments in the region to take this forward. The cost of such a system is likely to be high, but not as high as the suffering of the people affected and the economies of the nations concerned”, he added.

The reports released today, an international effort involving scientists and collaborating centres across the world, cover the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Atlantic and Indian Ocean SIDS.

They have been produced by UNEP’s Division of Early Warning and Assessment as part of its Global Environment Outlook series and UNEP’s Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA) based at the University of Kalmar, Sweden.

Mr. Toepfer said: “Small island developing States are amongst the most environmentally and economically vulnerable nations in the world. Many are geographically remote and are dependent upon limited natural resources such as freshwater, land and forests. Many are threatened by climate change in the guise of more extreme weather events and rising sea levels.”

He said the Indian Ocean SIDS had been far from idle over the past 10 years. Mauritius and Seychelles have established organized waste collection and disposal schemes and, along with the Comoros, are members of UNEP’s Regional Seas Programme. The Action Plan for Eastern Africa is aimed at developing laws, protection, capacity and public awareness with a special focus on the causes and remedies of marine and coastal pollution and degradation.

Meanwhile, several countries are trying to react and adapt to climate change. Mauritius, the first country to ratify the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has established Cells for Monitoring and Analysis of Sea Level as part of a pilot project on coastal impacts of climate change.

The project is backed by UNEP, the Indian Ocean Commission and the World Meteorological Organization.

A set of hurricane-resistant building codes, initially prepared for small islands in the Eastern Caribbean, has now been introduced for the Indian Ocean SIDS and weather experts are now getting enhanced training on cyclone forecasting.

“But we need much more action if we are to guarantee in the twenty-first century the environmental health of these islands and their rich and proud cultures. To make sound decisions, you need sound science. I sincerely hope that these new assessments of SIDS will help guide us all towards a more vigorous and focused effort to help these small nations and their people achieve a more sustainable future”, said Mr. Toepfer.

Climate Change

The Indian Ocean islands currently suffer around 10 tropical storms or cyclones between May and November each year.

Global warming is set to intensify the vulnerability of the islands of the Indian Ocean to extreme weather events, including storm surges and increased wave action with implications for water supplies, agriculture, beach erosion, the health of coral reefs and fisheries.

“The impacts of climate change are already evident and the frequency and intensity of extreme natural events are increasing in the Atlantic/Indian Ocean small island developing States”, say the reports.

“In Madagascar, the effects of sea-level rise are not observed, but in Comoros and Seychelles, several beaches have been eroded as a result of increased wave intensity and abnormal tidal ranges”, they add.

Under scenarios outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), large areas of the Maldives could be under water in 30 years time with the entire country submerged by 2100. Some 80 per cent of the Maldives is less than one metre below sea level.


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, degradation of coastal environments, including coral reefs and tourist attractions such as beaches.

Other impacts include possible disease outbreaks with discarded solid waste a breeding ground for pests such as rats and mosquitoes, as well as damage to fisheries and the accumulation of toxic substances in the environment.

The report argues that improper disposal of rubbish and wastes is encouraging vermin, including rats, which, in turn, carry diseases such as plague, scabies and other tropical diseases.

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.

The Indian Ocean Commission is attempting to bring concerted planning for solid waste management to the Comoros Itsandra Bay area.

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

The levels of rubbish in the capital Antananarivo alone are estimated to be 65,700 tonnes.

A growing problem is the dumping of waste at sea which adds to marine debris and the pollution of coastlines. As a result, islands, such as the World Heritage Site of Aldabara, which is famous for its giant tortoises, are now suffering from high levels of rubbish washed ashore.

Action Needed SIDS across the world are facing uncertain economic and environmental times as a result of shifts in demands for commodity crops such as sugar and bananas, sometimes rising populations with a thirst for modern, consumer living and emerging, wide-ranging threats, such as climate change.

Many islands are rising to the challenges acting within regional groupings to try and find ways to overcome their difficulties. Most are members of the myriad of multilateral agreements covering everything from hazardous wastes and global warming to shipping, fishing and biodiversity.

A considerable number have shown remarkable success in striving towards the United Nations Millennium Development Goals in areas such as education, the provision of drinking water and health.

But many of these goals may be overwhelmed by environmental decline and unsustainable development.

Most islands remain hampered by their remoteness, small gross national products with little chance of economies of scale for tackling issues such as domestic and industrial wastes, and by the difficulties of getting access to the technologies they need.

The global community must use the Mauritius Meeting to renew its commitment to these unique cultures and societies by increasing the resources available, by transferring appropriate technologies and building the capacities of governments, industries and civil society to overcome the shortfalls.

Climate change remains a key issue for many SIDS. Increased investment in vulnerability, early warning and adaptation schemes are urgently needed.

However, the best hope will be for the global community to make big reductions in greenhouse gases of 60 per cent or more. Many islands, like the Maldives, can only reduce vulnerability and adapt to rising sea levels for so long before they are partly or wholly submerged.

Note to Editors

“Atlantic and Indian Oceans Environment Outlook 2004” is available at www.unep.org.

“Indian Ocean Islands: GIWA Regional Assessment 45b” is also available at www.unep.org or www.giwa.net

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, mobile: +254-733-682.656, 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

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