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New Caledonia

The 'Micro' Pacific Islands Paying The Price Of Major Environmental Abuse

From Fiji to the Marshall Islands, it's time to react to the effects left by emissions from large industrialized nations.

Fiji in Melanesia, South Pacific Ocean
Fiji in Melanesia, South Pacific Ocean
Claudine Wery

NOUMEA - The constellation of islands and atolls scattered across a vast swath of the Pacific Ocean micro-states are among those most exposed to the consequences of global warming: ocean acidification, multiplication of natural disasters, coral reef degradation, rising sea-levels.

These little islands, which account for a total of about 10 million inhabitants, are paying for the environmental irresponsibility of the world’s great powers.

"Pacific islands are the victims of industrial countries unable to control their carbon dioxide emissions. The truth of the matter is that we have no option but to accept this and adapt," says Dr Jimmie Rodgers, head of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), a regional development organization.

At the initiative of the Research on Development Institute (IRD) and the University of New Caledonia, about 30 regional scientists brainstormed at the end of April on the design of a sustainable development model suitable for local conditions – where climate dictates new lifestyles for people with ancient traditions.

In a study published by the journal Nature Climate Change, the IRD and the SPC issue a warning on the “significant” impact of global warming on food security on these islands. Fish stocks, which are the primary source of protein for islanders and a basis for development, will be particularly affected. Currently about one million tons of tuna are caught every year in Oceania.

In Kiribati, fishing accounts for up to 40% of GDP while in the Marshall Islands, fishing and fish processing represent 25% of overall revenue. “The rising temperature of surface waters, which is greater in the western part of the ocean basin, will encourage tuna to migrate east toward Polynesia,” explains Johann Bell, one of the authors of the study and principal fisheries scientist at SPC.

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Sending out an S.O.S.? - Photo: Magpie372

Melanesian countries such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands will suffer the most: “PNG has a large canning industry, but in few decades, it will have to import tuna to keep it running,” says Bell. “Fortunately, it can count on favorable international agreements to buy fish wherever it likes, with low customs duty,” he says. For smaller economies such as Tuvalu or Kiribati, disappearance of tuna shoals could result in significant financial losses.

Lack of funds

Effects are even more dramatic on coastal fisheries, given the degradation of coral reefs. The population density of live coral reefs is expected to drop from 40% today across the Pacific, to 10% or 20% by 2050, say the scientists, which will translate into a decrease of 20% of reef fish.

With an increase in rainfall, the SPC encourages the expansion of aquaculture and freshwater fisheries. Nile tilapia fish farms, an introduced species, have opened in Fiji, Vanuatu and Samoa. In order to reduce the pressure on reefs and allow coastal populations to catch tuna, floating pontoon that attracts fish are also recommended.

On land, islanders must adapt as well. In Fiji, the Center for Pacific Crops and Trees (CePaCT) created a department that specializes in adapting food crops. "Climate change brings new constraints for crops, which are subject to unpredictable ecological pressures such as drought, higher salt concentrations, extreme temperatures and erosion," explains a representative. Thousands of varieties of Manioca, taro, sweet potatoes and bananas have been screened in order to offer farmers new and more resistant varieties. “We are promoting these seeds,” says Henry Puna, Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, an archipelago of 12,200 people that has been severely affected by coastal erosion.

But there is not enough money needed to finance these adaptation programs. International funding mechanisms are formatted for medium and large countries. The Pacific island countries rarely have the critical mass to qualify. "We cannot make ourselves heard in the international arena. It is vital for us to act as a region," says Puna, who is happy that climate change is the central theme of the annual summit of the Pacific Forum, a regional political organization, to be held in September in the Marshall Islands.

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