Insights and Analysis

Japan Tragedy Illuminates Vulnerability of Pacific Island Nations

April 20, 2011

By Kathryn E. Hawley

As news spread about the recent earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, there was immediate concern about the effects to the people living on small islands and atolls belonging to more than 22 Pacific Island Nations and scattered across thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean.

Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change and disaster risks, due principally to their geographical, geological, and socio-economic environments. The catastrophic event that unfolded for Japan last month was a reminder for these island states not only of their vulnerability but also of their recent experiences with disasters.

Heta Yard Damage

Over the past decade, Pacific Islands have experienced weather patterns with devastating effects. Above, damage from cyclone Heta, which hit Niue in 2004. Credit: NOAA / Earth System Research Laboratory

Over the past decade, Pacific Island Nations have experienced unusual weather patterns with devastating effects from climate-related hazards, or hydro-meteorological events, as they can be commonly referred to by disaster specialists:

  • Cyclone Heta, which hit Niue in 2004, generated immediate losses that exceeded the 2003 value of GDP by over five times;
  • In 2005, Cook Islands experienced five major cyclones crisscrossing its islands with unprecedented damaging effects;
  • High surf affected the northern Pacific countries of Micronesia and Marshall Islands in 2009, creating food shortages and health and sanitation concerns for the low-lying atolls;
  • Massive flooding in the districts of Nadi and Ba, Fiji, in 2009 caused economic losses for families and businesses estimated at more than $185 million;
  • 2009 Solomon Islands flooding in Guadalcanal Province affected hundreds of villagers creating serious disruption to food supply and communal livelihoods, and causing secondary health hazards.

As a result of these experiences and the awareness of the potential for future disasters, Pacific Island leaders are now calling for national action planning processes to tie both disaster risk management and climate change adaptation frameworks together into one overarching Joint National Action Plan (JNAP).

Natural hazard impacts are part of Pacific island life with adverse effects on people’s livelihoods, property, and the environment. Indicators point to increased intensity, magnitude, and frequency of hydro-meteorological hazards across the Pacific basin. Whether these factors are due to climate change or simply the evolution of time, the fact remains that an increasing numbers of lives are at risk. Running parallel to these phenomena are other risks to Pacific communities such as population increase, urbanization, insufficient or complete lack of building codes resulting in unsafe housing, poor land use management, and increased pressure on already-stretched water resources. For Pacific governments, it is not just the threat of immediate climate change impacts that is concerning, but also the detrimental impact climate change and disaster risks have on their countries’ national sustainable development.

Pacific Island Nations rely heavily on the agriculture and fisheries sectors for national productivity as well as for export earnings. The effects of climate change on island communities and livelihoods mean one of two things: increased rainfall which will lead to flooding, or decreased rainfall, creating droughts which harm crops and fisheries, as well as increase health risks. For example, in the Pacific, where communities rely on open rainwater catchments for drinking and personal hygiene, drought can create serious health and sanitation problems due to lack of water. Meanwhile, rising temperatures can cause health conditions such as heat stress, respiratory diseases, and skin diseases. Higher temperatures can also affect soil moisture and fertility, which can harm crops, such as taro, which is not only a staple for island communities but a major export crop for countries such as Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga. Sea level rise coupled with coastal erosion takes a toll on fragile ecosystems, which can have serious impacts on microorganisms that generate within mangroves, as well as loss of land and infrastructure along coastal zones. For example, in Micronesia, communal taro gardens are being affected by saltwater intrusion; in Tuvalu and other low-lying atolls, coastal communities have been forced to relocate as their front yards and homes are under assault from seawater particularly at high tide.

The small size of island economies means the effects of disasters felt by Pacific communities are disproportionately high. The 2007 earthquake and accompanying tsunami that hit the Solomon Islands cost the country around $90 million – or around 90 percent of the 2006 recurrent government budget. Given current fears that climate change could increase the frequency and severity of natural disasters, the value of these losses could increase over time.

Since 1995, with support from the USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, and in partnership with the National Disaster Management Offices of the respective Pacific countries, The Asia Foundation’s Pacific program has focused on disaster risk management training: specifically the design, development, and implementation of disaster risk management courses to strengthen regional and national capacity for disaster management and disaster risk reduction. We are also working with the Applied Geoscience and Technology Division of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community on the development of new Joint National Action Plans on Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Management as the vehicle through which the countries can mainstream disaster and climate risk considerations into their national and sectoral planning processes and budgets to reduce the potential impact of future disasters to national economies.

Despite whatever is thrown their way, it is critical for Pacific nations to ensure they have the national capacity, with appropriate action plans in place, to effectively deal with all aspects of disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.

Kathryn Hawley is The Asia Foundation’s director of the Pacific Program, based in Fiji. She can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Pacific Islands
Related programs: Environment and Climate Action
Related topics: Earth Day, Tohoku Earthquake


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