POINTING out that three tiny South Pacific nations – Kiribati, Tuvalu and Marshall islands – are “destined to slip below the waves altogether”, feisty Fijian Prime Minister Josaia Bainimarama has appealed to the international community to help Fiji and the other South Pacific island states build resilience to the impact of climatic change, which he described as the “terror of the extreme weather events”.
Addressing the opening of the 72nd UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) sessions (May 17-19) as outgoing chair, Bainimarama said:
“History will judge the industrial nations very harshly if they leave small and vulnerable nations to their fate without extending the appropriate helping hand. We have not caused global warming. They have.”
He told ministers and senior officials from over 65 countries in the Asia-Pacific region that the industrial nations “must use a portion of the wealth they have derived from the carbon emissions of their industries to assist those of us who aren’t as wealthy as they are and are bearing the brunt of the crisis they created”.
On February 20 this year, the biggest cyclone ever to hit landfall in the southern hemisphere slammed into the Fiji Islands with wind speeds of over 300 km an hour, killing 44 people and destroying over 40,000 homes and 229 schools.
The World Bank has estimated the total cost of damage at around 1.4 billion dollars.
“A single extreme weather event scoring a direct hit on us could devastate our economies for many years to come … and reverse all the development gains that we have worked so hard to achieve,” noted Bainimarama, adding a sobering message that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will have no meaning in the South Pacific without concerted assistance from the international community to help the small vulnerable island nations to weather these threats.
“For all our talk of the 2030 Agenda, countries like Fiji have little or no hope of achieving their Sustainable Development Goals without the urgent assistance of the global community,” he warned.
“What Pacific Island leaders are highlighting is that those advanced countries which have more resources need to take a bigger share of responsibilities in terms of dealing cooperatively with these countries to find solutions to the problem,” Hamza Ali Malik, Chief of ESCAP’s Macroeconomic Policy and Analysis Section, told INPS in an interview.
Building resilience to climatic change is one of the three pillars that ESCAP is focusing on for achievement of the SDGs, Malik said.
“Their (Pacific) economies are affected on a huge scale (and) one disaster takes them back several years in terms of development,” he noted.
“They don’t have capacity to deal with things like feeding people affected by these and rebuilding infrastructure, etc. We need to incorporate upfront in the development framework the trade-off necessary between environmental sustainability and economic growth.”
To demonstrate that Fiji is not just sitting there and waiting for international assistance to fall into its lap, Bainimarama’s government organised a well-attended side-event at the ESCAP sessions to demonstrate their determination to build resilience to climatic change terror threats.
Addressing the side-event, ESCAP’s Deputy Executive Director Kaveh Zahedi said that “building resilience (to climatic change) is not a choice but a necessity”.
He suggested that disaster relief should not be the responsibility of one ministry alone but spread across all ministries, especially in the small vulnerable states like in the South Pacific.
“We need to change mindsets,” he argued, pointing out that threats from cyclones and similar weather patterns is not restricted to one nation but is cross-border in nature.
In a presentation, Dr Andi Eka Sakya, head of the Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics, noted that because Indonesia is also an archipelago of small island states it has had ample experience in dealing with natural disaster precipitated by climatic change and thus the scope for South-South cooperation in this field in the region is ripe.
He explained how Indonesia continues to help Fiji in coping with the effects of and rebuilding after the February cyclone and Indonesia has recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with ESCAP for South-South cooperation in this field.
“Indonesia has much experience in disaster management (and) we have developed long-term strategic planning,” he noted, adding that in April Indonesia discussed the building of a Pacific Hub for facilitating disaster relief with ESCAP.
The Director-General of Thailand’s Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, Chatchai Phromlert, told the meeting that following the 2005 Asian tsunami, Thailand has built up experience and resources in responding to climatic change and natural disasters.
“We are aware of the need for regional cooperation,” he said, and “we want to focus more on pro-active programmes than reactive ones.”
Building systems of resilience to the impact of climatic change weather patterns is important for achieving SDGs in the South Pacific, argued Fiji’s Minister of Agriculture, Maritime and Rural Development, Inia Seruiratu. “We need to introduce transformative changes,” he said.
“We need to change the way we live. We need to embrace disaster and climate risks as our new normal.”
Fiji has called for blending disaster risk assessment into SDG plans and adding it to the SDGs as goal number 18.
In his presentation to Fiji’s side-event, the minister noted that while the focus on poverty reduction in the SDGs is important, it needs to be balanced with addressing climatic risks.
Addressing a plenary discussion, Tuvalu’s Deputy Prime Minister Maatia Toafa said that the “challenges of climate change are enormous for a micro-state like Tuvalu.
In addition to the physical impacts of climate change that the country is experiencing, we are also dealing with the difficulty of accessing global climate funds … to build adaptive capacity by climate-proofing critical infrastructure.”
Pointing out that his government has established the Tuvalu Survival Fund with a capital infusion of 5 million dollars to finance recovery and rehabilitation from climate change impacts and disasters, he said that ”after the devastating effect of Tropical Cyclone Pam in 2015, we learnt that we need this fund because of the unavailability of appropriate insurance” and invited ESCAP member countries to contribute to this fund.
In addition to climatic change, another major impediment to sustainable development in small Pacific Islands is extreme dependence on fossil fuels for their energy needs, as pointed out in a report released at the ESCAP meeting on the sustainable development issues facing Asia-Pacific countries with “special needs” (CSN).
Dubbed the CSN report, it points out that while the small island states of the South Pacific face severe disadvantages due to their small size, remoteness that deprives them easy access to major markets, a limited export base and regular environmental problems (such as cyclones), a major impediment for their sustainable development is their high dependence on imported petroleum fuel for electricity generation.
With 365 days of ample sunshine, surrounded by seas and accompanying winds, these islands have much scope to tap into solar, geothermal and wind power, but, investments in such renewable energy sources in most of the Pacific Island countries is very low.
Even attempts to harness wind energy have been affected by climatic change-driven cyclones. As Masakazu Hamachi, Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan, pointed out in a panel discussion, even when Tonga installed wind power generators, cyclones blew the blades away.
Meanwhile, in talks between Fiji’s Prime Minister and ESCAP Executive Secretary Dr Shamshad Akther, the two parties have tentatively agreed to the establishment of a climate change centre in Fiji to provide practical training and capacity-building for small and vulnerable states.