Author

Email: [email protected]

Ms. Fine TU'ITUPOU ARNOLD

Secretary General , Cook Islands Red Cross Society

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Climate Change and Small Island States

By Ms. Fine TU’ITUPOU ARNOLD, Secretary General of Cook Islands Red Cross Society

As someone born, raised, educated and living in small island developing states (SIDS) in the Pacific, I am very familiar with the challenges we face.  We are collections of tiny countries, far from anywhere – the islands that make up our countries are often, themselves, strung out over vast distances.

Smallness in itself, along with internal and external remoteness, makes running these countries a challenge – even without adding the consequences. What’s more, almost all small island states around the world are in the tropics. This means that our societies and lives have always faced the perils that come with the tropical climate.

Historically, those perils have been of two sorts – the extreme weather events that, in the Pacific we call cyclones, and the many varied and deadly diseases that thrive in the warm and humid climate of the tropics.

Cyclones, of course, have always threatened low lying islands – and small island states have, literally, thousands of these. Coral atolls are uniquely vulnerable to cyclones, simply because they are so low.

Living in small island states, we already know what ocean rise looks like, for even today, before the real impacts of a global warming really start to kick in, we know of islands completely submerged by storm surge, with entire communities destroyed and islands left uninhabitable.

It is not difficult to imagine our future, lying amid oceans of warming, rising waters, under an ever- hotter tropical sun. We will see;

  • more frequent and more intense cyclones;
  • rising sea levels making whole islands uninhabitable;
  • a spread, outwards from the warmest part of the planet of diseases and disease vectors – the malaria carrying mosquito, for instance, that until now, have been relatively confined.

Nor is it difficult to predict how this will impact small island developing states. Quite simply, we have spent the last half century trying to build our standard of living and infrastructures. That has been hard enough in good times; it is going to become so much more difficult in bad times.

We can expect our governments to do the best they can. Already they are aware of the need to build sustainability. Small island states are not waiting for the stronger cyclones – we are rebuilding, strengthening, revising building codes, raising structures and doing everything we can to batten down the hatches.

Our focus on this area is in part because, typically, large cyclones receive a lot of media attention – giving on to donor assistance in recovery – and out of that the understandable focus on DRM, moving forward. Funding and sustainability in this area looks reasonably promising – and that’s before anyone gets into the debates about “Loss and Damage’.

Speaking personally, I believe that the threat from cyclones will become hugely more challenging, but will remain manageable, partly because the peoples of small island states have always had to contend with these extreme weather events and those events do look likely to continue to generate focussed, international, support.

I am a lot less confident about the more subtle and slow-onset impacts of climate change. These are real and frightening. Rising sea levels for those at low level are going to impoverish small communities in terms of both water supplies and diminishing land resources; out of that will come a low-grade, ever-rising, long term, humanitarian crisis.

For National Societies in small island states, the constant battle is for sustainability; we are continually having to do more with less. Climate change is going to rachet up that struggle. As ordinary people at the community and grass roots level try to adapt to a worsening living environment, National Societies will find themselves having to step up.

I think the impact of climate change on health is going to be a huge issue. Forget cyclones for a moment and just think of the warmer, wetter, conditions we are told to expect.

  • flooding and increased rainfall has historically been linked to a whole range of endemic diseases – largely because of increased breeding grounds for disease – carrying insects
  • We know too, that climate-sensitive diseases – that are sensitive to changing in temperature and humidity are all going to find conditions more to their liking.
  • Increased heat and humidity, along with the challenges of flooding and high rainfall all make for problems in terms of safe food supplies and for clean water and sanitation

Every National Society is going to find that – week in, week out – these factors are going to affect communities – small incremental impacts, to be sure. However, collectively, they will add up to an enormous burden to the resources of national governments. Inevitably, then, with their auxiliary role, National Societies will find themselves, increasingly, called upon to fill the gap.

I think that National Societies in small island states are going to find it a lot harder to attract and retain overseas donors to help in dealing with this sort of societal-wide, full time, stressing of lifestyles and standard of living and health in small island states.

For me, this just underlines why I am so passionate, both about the idea of localisation and about empowering women. These are grass-roots level strategies that are well suited to the task of giving communities the capacity to prepare and to respond to the changing environment in which they will have to live and work.

The real challenges of climate change will not be the big blow of the occasional cyclone; they will be found in the daily lives of small villages and communities, their financial impacts will have humanitarian consequences at the level of domestic finances – and their human impact will be largely invisible to the world’s media and the high profile fundraising we see in the aftermath of sudden onset disasters.

Two good news, I guess, are that modern technologies and changing attitudes around the world make localisation – after all an old Red Cross Red Crescent tradition – and gender equality practical and feasible as never before; the time to get serious about them, though, is now – for it seems ever more certain that Global Warming is coming – and coming fast.

The other is as a Federation and a Movement, we have considerable knowledge and experience, we have the tools to share these, and we have the Principles to guide us. That gives me hope.

Author

Email: [email protected]

Ms. Fine TU'ITUPOU ARNOLD

Secretary General , Cook Islands Red Cross Society

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Read more

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