Marine Policy 1994 18 (2) 183-185
Global climatic change Impact on coastal environments
of the South Pacific
Climatic change and expected sea level rise are emerging as major threats to marine and coastal environments, and as a major concern for the Pacific Island countries. United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution 44/206 of 22 December 1987, noted ‘Possible adverse effects of sea level rise on islands and coastal areas, particularly low-lying coastal areas’, recognized that climate change is a common concern for mankind and urged the international community to collaborate in a concerted effort to prepare the Framework Convention on Climate Change that was launched at the Rio Summit in 1992 and signed by most leaders of the Pacific island countries. However, the world continues to be confronted by disparities between and within nations, worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being. The integration of environment and development concerns and greater attention to them will lead to the fulfilment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future. This requires cooperation between nations and between regions and that such cooperation be based on the real aspiriations of the people. The future of the Pacific within the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group depends very much on building a cooperative relationship, based on mutual benefit, and on maintaining close cooperation with the European Community and the rest of the world. The environment is, if anything, an even more vital issue for the tiny island nations of the South The Honourable leremia Tabai is Secretary General, South Pacific Forum, Forum Secretariat, GPO Box 856, Suava Fiji.
Pacific than it is for larger countries of Asia and Europe. Everything about the region is connected to the environment. In brief the region is characterized by: small land masses widely dispersed over the world’s largest ocean (an EEZ of 30 million square kilometres with the land occupying only 1.8% of the total area); diverse ecosystems and species; a high degree of economic and cultural dependence on the natural environment; vulnerability to a wide range of natural disasters; and a diversity of cultures, languages and traditional customs which are central to the close and special relationship of Pacific people with their environment . Common concerns about the environment and sustainable development naturally draw Pacific island countries together to seek action on global environmental issues which threaten the countries in the region. Climatic disruption and potential sea level rise are issues of grave concern; our reliance on fragile biological resources is threatened by the patterns of large-scale exploitation of marine and terrestrial living resources. There is concern about the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change on the wealth of species and ecosystems in the region. It is the concern about the environment that underlies interest in the region in negotiations towards global conventions on climate change and the protection of biological diversity and the subsequent signing of both conventions by the Pacific island country leaders in June 1992 in Brazil. Global warming and sea-level rise are among the most serious environmental threats to many hun-
Global climatic change: I Tabai
dreds of low-lying islands and atolls in the Pacific. Any problems caused by or associated with the potential impacts of expected climate changes will have a profound effect on these islands and atolls and add to the problems already faced by increasingly crowded and over-stressed coastal areas in the region. The low-lying islands, atolls and coastal areas are home to many thousands of Pacific inhabitants who depend on their ecologies for subsistence and economic activities. In some of these islands people are already heavily dependent on extremely scarce supplies of potable groundwater and natural resources, have very limited areas of arable soil, and are at great risk from extreme natural disasters such as cyclones, droughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tectonic movements. In spite of the uncertainties that still surround the predicted climatic changes, greenhouse gases have accumulated in the atomosphere to levels that may have already led to climatic changes and their continuation may now be inevitable. The Pacific island countries welcomed the announcement by European Community and other developed nations to reduce their emissions of industrially generated greenhouse gases, in particular carbon dioxide to the calculated level of production in 1986. They also welcomed the decision of the Fourth Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol in 1992 to extend the deadlines for the total phasement of production and consumption to 1 January 1996 to enable the Pacific Island nations time to sign and ratify the protocol. The extent and rate of rise in sea level is uncertain and prompted South Pacific island country leaders to establish the South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project in 1989. The project, which is funded by the Australian government, is aimed at setting up high resolution monitoring stations in 11 Pacific island countries to measure and collect data on the relative motions of land and sea at each station on a long-term basis, in order to better understand the scale and implications of changing sea levels and climate in the South Pacific region. Eight of the 11 sites are scheduled to be in operation by June 1993. For all the islands the environmental consequences of ill-conceived development can be catastrophic. The recent human history of our region contains examples of entire islands rendered uninhabitable through environmental destruction by human beings. Unsustainable development threatens not only the livelihood of the people but also the islands themselves. Over the long term, therefore, persistent neglect of environmental issues can limit the opportunities for future economic development.
The World Bank has concluded that better environmental management is not only compatible with economic growth but is also required for improved health standards, more equitable development and often poverty alleviation. Failure to address environmental degradation will lead to a less pleasant phyical environment, poorer health standards, and eventually decreasing agricultural and forest yields and worsening sea food quality and yields. The South Pacific Forum has stressed that development undertaken in the region must be sustainable. It has indicated that sound environmental practices constitute an integral part of the development process and that all activities pursued in the region must be both economically and ecologically sound. The region remains extremely vulnerable to natural disasters and high population growth and is amongst the most seriously threatened by environmental degradation. macro-economic The frameworks of the Pacific island countries are under transition while population growth rates are amongst the world’s highest. While public expectations are rising, the economic growth of most nations has not kept pace, a situation which is exacerbated by the global economic depression. Many resource shortages and environmental concerns can be traced to high population densities and the continuing high rate of population growth. For the Pacific island countries, finding ways to stem or reduce overpopulation is fundamental to achieving sustainable development. Since its inception in 1971 the South Pacific Forum has consistently accorded high priority to environmental issues. In addition to its long-standing concerns about the regional environmental impact of nuclear testing, the Forum discussed measures to control pollution in the South Pacific as far back as 1972. It addressed environmental conservation in the Pacific in 1976, and adopted a resolution on regional environmental management in 1977. In 1979 the Forum strongly condemned any move to use the Pacific as a dumping ground for nuclear waste. In 1988 the Forum expressed concern about climatic change in the South Pacific and its potential for serious social and economic disruption, and subsequently established the South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project in 1989. This was followed in 1991 by the adoption of the Tarawa Declaration on the Convention for the Prohibition of Fishing with Long Drift-nets in the South Pacific and its Protocols. In 1992 the Forum endorsed the Agenda 21 Chapter on Living Marine Resources and reaffirmed its commitment to the cessation of drift-
Marine Policy 1994 Volume 18 Number 2
Global climatic change: I Tabai
net fishing and fully supported the UNGA Resolution 462/215 banning high-seas drift-net fishing globally by 31 October 1992. The Forum also welcomed and fully supported the first Global Conference on Sustainable Development of Small Island States in 1994 to be hosted by Barbados. The Forum member countries actively participated in the UNCED process with support from regional organizations, in particular the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme, and the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS). In the communique released following its last meeting in the Solomon Islands, the Forum continued to stress the high priority given to environmental issues. It reiterated concerns made at UNCED that the most serious environmental concerns of the region include: l
lack of UNCED attention to population growth which was felt to impose a significant strain on resources within the Pacific; threat to fresh water resources, especially coastal and atoll underground water tables; importance of preserving the region’s biological diversity; the desire to end high-seas drift-net fishing; the need to protect the ocean from land-based pollution; the control of hazardous wastes which may only be possible through a regional convention; the need for more widespread environmental education; the desirability of indefinite suspension of nuclear testing within the region; and the necessity for more coastal zone protection.
Another environmental issue of vital importance to the region is the conservation and proper management of the fisheries stocks of the Pacific Ocean. This is absolutely critical to the region’s development prospects: these fisheries stocks represent the only real natural resource which many of the region’s small and resource-poor nations possess. The Forum has over the years helped countries to develop cooperative and mutually beneficial relationships with the distant-water fishing nations which exploit these marine resources, and, when necessary, vigorously to combat predatory practices which have threatened the resource. It was the Forum, at its annual meeting in Tarawa in 1989, which effectively launched the international campaign against the environmentally disastrous prac-
Marine Policy 1994 Volume 18 Number 2
tice of drift-netting - a campaign which has resulted in a complete global cessation of this method of fishing. As a result of these efforts, the region now has generally excellent relations with the major fishing nations, and it is now easier to address the issue of conservation and the need to avoid overexploitation. There are still some issues in need of attention, however. A major current concern is work underway in the United Nations context to find ways to regulate fishing on the high seas of highly migratory species, and of straddling stocks which are found both within the EEZs of coastal States and in high-seas waters. The Forum regards it as urgent to protect these stocks effectively by adopting internationally agreed regulatory measures that will be binding on the distant-water fishing nations, and which recognize that authority for the management of the stocks should remain where it belongs, in the hands of the coastal States of the region. The South Pacific Region Environment Programme (SPREP), which has become an independent intergovernmental organization, is responsible for the coordination, protection and management of the environment of the South Pacific. Over the last 10 to 15 years, the 22 member countries and territorities of SPREP have organized themselves to protect and improve their shared environment and to work cooperatively. SPREP has set itself an ambitious programme of support for national programmes and activities. This seeks on the one hand to reconcile the urgency of social and economic development and on the other to overcome limitations on the availability in the region of natural and technological resources. Because of this SPREP now faces the many challenges of completing its institution building as quickly as possible, while at the same time ensuring that its work programme is developed in such a way as to provide maximum benefits for its member countries and territories. As was indicated earlier, the region’s commitment to sustainable development is not a goal that the Pacific islands can achieve on their own. The European Community is already supporting SPREP and the region welcomes and encourages this increased technical cooperation with the European Community. Our joint endeavour to protect the global environment was launched at the Rio Summit in Brazil, in June 1992. The real challenge is to translate that political will into future actions to save the earth.