Can the Pacific Islands be Saved?

Image by Michelle Maria from Pixabay

Climate change debates and discussions around the world take different forms [Core: THE WRATH OF NATURE]. Some argue about what has caused it while some others discuss how best to navigate it without giving up many of the luxuries they already enjoy.

The Pacific Islands lie at the front lines of the wrath of nature, and for them the time for such debate is past. In 2016, Fiji lost almost a third of its GDP when Winston – the worst cyclone recorded in the Southern Hemisphere – swirled over the country, leaving much havoc in its wake. A recent study commissioned by the US Department of Defense states that climate change will leave many Pacific Islands completely uninhabitable by mid-century. While submergence remains a possibility, this study argues that low-lying Pacific Islands will become uninhabitable long before that – before 2030 in a worst-case scenario and by 2065 in a more optimistic case – due to waves washing over them frequently enough to ruin groundwater supplies and damage crops and infrastructure.

Given the severity of the danger that lies ahead, no option can be off the table. One potential solution perhaps is mass exodus – structured, large-scale immigration from these islands within a limited time frame to countries which are willing to accept them. However, a cursory glance at the current nationalistic sentiments around the world suggests that few political leaders would be willing to engage in such an act. Another solution in the conversation is the large scale reclamation of land to rebuild and re-inhabit small island states, using technologies similar to those on display in the Chinese-funded Port City of Colombo, Sri Lanka. While this is unlikely to be popular among environmental advocacy groups, it remains an option, even a viable one, given the rise and power of new multilateral financial institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Bank (AIIB).

Even in the absence of complete uninhabitability in the short term, the region still needs to scale-up its adaptation efforts substantially to deal with climate change. A significant issue lies in funding: a report released during COP23 in Bonn Germany in 2017 estimated that Fiji alone would need about USD 4.5 bn over the next decade to deal with the devastating effects of climate change – an impossible price for a country with a GDP of just over USD 5 bn in 2017. The need of the hour has launched the country headlong into radically innovative financing strategies that may inspire other countries dealing with climate change: alongside France and Poland, it became one of the first countries to develop and launch a sovereign green bond, with plans to invest proceeds in crop resilience, flood management in sugarcane fields, water, and energy efficiency, reforestation and developing weather-resilient infrastructure.

There is also potential here for international collaboration. A recent study by The Lowy Institute has identified climate change adaptation as a potential point of collaboration with China in the Pacific Islands region, especially given the fact that China has a sizable climate aid pool. A recent UNDP report also points to climate change as a potential opening for trilateral partnership in the Pacific Islands region for Australia, New Zealand, and China. While such cooperation might sound feasible on paper, The Lowy Institute fears that it might not transpire in reality, since Australia and New Zealand’s renewed ambitions about the Pacific Islands may have other reasons. Given the urgency of its needs, the Pacific Islands may welcome any support with open arms, since in times of existential threat, survival takes precedence over everything else. Whoever moves to help first may very well change the geopolitics around these islands – and potentially save hundreds of thousands.

This report has been written by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, Merl Chandana, Sriganesh Lokanathan and Shazna Zuhyle of LIRNEasia with commissioning by the UNDP Regional Innovation Centre (RIC) as an exploratory and intellectual analysis; the views and opinions published in this work are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect or represent the official position or policy of the RIC, United Nations Development Programme or any United Nations agency or UN Member States.

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