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Sustainable Development of 39 Small Island Developing States – No Time to Wait

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Jun 18 2024 (IPS) - Today Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the environmental threats they confront require our urgent attention —and the global spotlight needs to be trained deliberately and maintained consistently on their concerns, in particular, climate change, marine biological diversity loss and sustainable development goals (SDGs).

A world in which other pressing matters compete for attention, this challenge could easily be neglected.

There is a significant community of small island states in the world. The United Nations recognizes 39 of them. The aggregate population of all the SIDS is 65 million, slightly less than 1% of the world’s population but nevertheless a population that requires our attention.

They share similar sustainable development challenges, including small populations, limited local resources, including land, remoteness, susceptibility to frequent natural disasters, easy vulnerability to external shocks, excessive dependence on external trade and almost all are highly threatened by climate change.

SIDS were recognized as a special case both for their environment and development challenges at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development  in Rio de Janeiro. 

High import and export costs will continue to be a factor in their economies, while their dependence on external markets due to the narrow resource bases make them particularly vulnerable. Since they control sea areas (in particularly the Exclusive Economic Zones),on average 28 times the size of their land mass, much of their natural resources come from the seas and oceans that surround them.

Therefore, the seas and oceans are critical from their perspective. Vulnerability to exogenous economic shocks and fragile land and marine ecosystems make SIDS particularly susceptible to biodiversity loss and climate change.

The Blue Economy, defined by World Bank as the “sustainable use of ocean resources to benefit economies, livelihoods and ocean ecosystem health” becomes particularly relevant to SIDS.

Over 40 percent of SIDS are affected by, or are on the edge of, unsustainable levels of debt, severely constraining their ability to invest in resilience, climate action and sustainable development. This is why they have been recognised as a special group that requires concentrated assistance.

The four main geographical regions in which SIDS are concentrated are the Caribbean, the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. 

4th International Conference on SIDS, 27 – 30 May, 2004

In his opening address as the President of the 4th International Conference on SIDS, Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, forcefully underlined the importance of its theme — “Charting the Course Toward Resilient Prosperity”.

Stressing that such States are “on the front lines of a battlefield of a confluence of crises — none of which they have caused or created” — he said that the small size of such States, limited financial resources and constrained human capital, place them at a marked disadvantage on the global stage. Further, their journey towards development has been repeatedly disrupted by monumental crises, among them the financial meltdown of 2008 and the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.

Reflecting the sentiments of many, he called for urgent, multilateral solutions, and he observed that those present are gathered “not only to reiterate challenges, but also to demand and enact solutions”. The Global North, in particular, must honour its commitments — including providing $1 billion in climate financing to assist with adaptation and mitigation.

Gaston Browne identified a clear gap in the oft expressed pious sentiments of the international community and actual action taken to implement these.

SIDS Dependency on the Seas and Oceans

Traditionally most small island states, surrounded by the seas and oceans, have been dependent on the oceans far more than bigger states for most of their needs. The seas provide a significant part of their food, including, fish, crustaceans, sea weed, etc, energy needs are imported across the seas, introduced and imported food, tourism which plays a considerable economic role, daily essentials and exports.

Sea food is a critical source of protein for SIDs. Today lobsters, prawns, scallops, mussels, etc are also a major income source for fishermen and a critical foreign exchange earner.

The income and protein source provided by the seas and oceans is threatened in some areas by overfishing, pollution, predatory and unregulated fishing by distant water fishers and, critically, by the impacts of climate change. The warming of the oceans is already having a devastating impact on coral reefs, so important as spawning grounds for myriads of fish and other economically important species.

Warming seas are likely to cause some fish species to migrate away from their traditional habitats and others to become extinct. Tuna migration habits in the Pacific Ocean, for example, are changing due to the heating of the ocean. This could have an enormous impact on Pacific small island states whose food supplies and economies depend on the tuna catch, and could cause an estimated $140 million loss in average government revenue per year.

Given the importance of the marine environment to small island states, it is vital that the exploitation of the resource takes place sustainably. Once a vital resource of this nature is lost, it is unlikely that it will recover in a short time, if ever. International agreements and arrangements in place at present with need to implemented with vigour and other arrangements may have to be put in place.

International Action and Options for SIDS

With their small economies, SIDS are at the mercy of the elements and with limited fall back options. A single hurricane could wipe out the economies of some small island states. Despite their minimal historical greenhouse gas emissions, SIDS face some of the most severe impacts of climate change, with serious loss and damage in the form of destroyed infrastructure, economic and cultural loss, loss of lives and livelihoods, loss of biodiversity and forced displacement.

It is now widely acknowledged that the depletion of the resource of the seas and oceans will result in numerable and unpredictable consequences including, massive unemployment, increased poverty, malnutrition, overall negative economic impacts, economic migration which will have repercussions for neighboring countries and possible community unrest.

Some international initiatives offer adaptation options to the SIDS.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) established the Regional Seas Programme in 1974. (The Programme now administers this regional mechanism for the conservation of the marine and coastal environment to address the accelerating marine pollution). 18 regions participate in the Programme, of which 14 Regional Seas programmes are underpinned by legally binding conventions. The participating regions include, South Asian Seas, South-East Pacific, Western Africa and the Wider Caribbean where many of the SIDS are located.

In January 2015, the General Assembly began the negotiation process on the post-2015 development agenda, essentially the post Millennium Development Goals agenda. The process culminated in the adoption, at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015, of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with 17 SDGs and 169 targets at its core.

Following the adoption of Agenda 2030, the Regional Seas Programme seeks to assist Member States in achieving the ocean-related SDGs by coordinating national actions at the regional level. SIDS stand to benefit considerably from these programmes. Thus the Regional Seas programmes set the Regional Seas Strategic Directions (2017-2020) and decided to:

    1. Reduce marine pollution of all kinds in line with the SDG Goal 14.1.
    2. Create increased resilience of people, marine and coastal ecosystems, and their health and productivity, in line with the SDG Goal 13 and decisions made at the UNFCCC COP21.
    3. Develop integrated, ecosystem-based regional ocean policies and strategies for sustainable use of marine and coastal resources, paying close attention to blue growth.
    4. Enhance effectiveness of Regional Seas Conventions and Action Plans as regional platforms for supporting integrated ocean policies and management.

Under the Paris Accords of 2015, developed country Parties to the Accords agreed to provide financial resources to assist highly vulnerable country Parties with regard to both mitigation and adaptation consistent with their existing obligations under the Convention.

The UNEP Adaptation Finance GAP Report estimates that adaptation finance needs in developing countries will reach $140 billion – $300 billion per year by 2030, and $280 billion to $500 billion per year by 2050. SIDS, if they are proactive in the search for funding, are expected to be a major beneficiary under this commitment.

It is recalled that under the Paris Accords, developed countries reaffirmed the commitment to mobilize $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020, and agreed to continue mobilising finance at this level until 2025. This commitment included finance for the Green Climate Fund, which is a part of the UNFCCC, and also for a variety of other public and private programmes. This amount has not been reached at all.

The Paris Accords also recognize loss and damage. Loss and damage can stem from extreme weather events, or from slow-onset events such as the loss of land to sea level rise for low-lying islands and the warming of the seas. Tuna migration habits in the Pacific Ocean, for example, are changing due to the heating of the ocean.

The push to address loss and damage as a distinct issue in the Paris Agreement came from the Alliance of Small Island States and the Least Developed Countries, whose economies and livelihoods are most vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change.

At Cop 27 in 2022 countries agreed to establish a Loss and Damage Fund, which would provide financial assistance to climate-vulnerable countries. The fund was officially operationalized at Cop 28 in November 2023. The major beneficiaries can be the SIDS.

In 2021, Tuvalu in the Pacific and Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean established a Commission for Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law. The intention is to take claims for loss and damage to international judicial tribunals.

Vanuatu is also leading a campaign to ask the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion on climate change. This initiative had its beginnings in2014 under the sponsorship of Mauritius.

Now we have an additional development which should make us think deeper.

June 2023, the United Nations adopted a new treaty under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Agreement on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity of Areas beyond National Jurisdiction (‘BBNJ’). Today, this is also known as the High Seas Biodiversity Treaty.

During the negotiations on this treaty, while the developed North focused more on Marine Protected Areas, and these are important, the South was equally interested in the equitable sharing of the benefits of exploiting the mega genetic pool of the oceans.

Properly managed, implemented in the right spirit, the sharing of benefits under this treaty could bring considerable material rewards to SIDS. They will benefit considerably if the sharing of benefits of the exploitation of BBNJ works well. It has been said that a single bucket of sea water could contain more genetic material than hectares of dry land.

Already major pharmaceutical companies are producing drugs developed from genetic material recovered from the high seas.

Dr Palitha Kohona is former Sri Lanka Ambassador to China and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN and one-time Co-Chair of the UN ad hoc committee on BBNJ.

IPS UN Bureau


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