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All Africa

Natural And Man-Made Disasters Threaten Stability Of Small Islands

6 January 2005
Copyright © 2005 All Africa. All rights reserved.

London/Nairobi, Jan 06, 2005 (United Nations Environment Program/All Africa Global Media via COMTEX) -- 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 (SIDS) 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 the Maldives," he said.

Specific requests have so far come from Indonesia, which has asked UNEP to establish an environmental crisis centre, the 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 the 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 say.

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, SIDS 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 USD 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 member of UNEP's Finance Initiative, weather-related disasters are on the rise. In the first ten months of 2004, insured losses amounted to some USD 35 billion-the largest loss ever-with uninsured losses some USD 90 billion.

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