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Migration stripping Pacific Islands of climate change know-how

by Catherine Wilson | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 11 December 2014 08:24 GMT

Sea level rise in the Solomon Islands is nearly three times the global average and low lying island communities are facing threats to food security and freshwater resources. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Catherine Wilson

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Low salaries, lack of jobs and funding restrictions by donors are all driving migration of climate talent, experts say

By Catherine Wilson

SYDNEY (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Many small Pacific Island states on the frontline of sea level rise and disaster threats are facing a shortage of the scientists, skilled professionals and technical experts they need to put in place effective climate change policies and adaptation projects.

"Climate change and disaster risk management expertise is critical for the Pacific region," Espen Ronneberg, climate change adviser to the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP), in Samoa, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The effects of climate change, such as droughts, floods, coastal erosion, sea level rise, rising temperatures and increases in cyclone intensity, will put greater pressure on communities and affect the food security, health and well-being of Pacific Islanders," he said.

Sea level rise in the southwest Pacific region has been 2-3 times the global average of about 3 mm per year and coastal villagers in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Kiribati are already struggling with flooding of their homes and destruction of food crops and freshwater by the encroaching sea.

Most island communities are situated on or near coastlines and are further endangered by their acute exposure to natural disasters, such as cyclones and tsunamis.


Yet holding onto skilled people capable of dealing with the problems is a challenge for many climate change offices in the region, particularly given restricted national budgets.

"Governments in the region have had to reduce payrolls through structural adjustment programs imposed by certain development banks" and often "priorities for funding health and education professionals come higher than specialised skills required for different climate change projects," Ronneberg explained.

Many adaptation projects are also reliant on donor funding, which is usually provided for a specific period of time. That can make it difficult for implementing agencies "to sustain and engage the expertise" when the projects end, said Jacob Ekinye, acting director for adaptation at the Office of Climate Change and Development in Papua New Guinea.

Emele Duituturaga, executive director of the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, based in Fiji, said a "brain drain" to richer nations is also a problem.

Across the region, but especially in island countries with small populations in Polynesia and Micronesia, rising numbers of school and university graduates can't find formal jobs.

This problem, combined with low salaries in the jobs that are available, is encouraging an outward flow of qualified people seeking greater career prospects elsewhere.

That means people needed at home to contribute to sustainable development are instead ending up in larger economies such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

In Micronesia, 15.7 percent of people born in the islands migrate away. In Tonga it's 15.4 percent and Samoa 13.4 percent. Across all small island states of the world, the migration rate averages 1.4 percent, according to the United Nations Population Division.

Emigration rates should be 10 percent in developing countries to ensure there is no detrimental impact on development capacity, according to the Bonn-based Institute for the Study of Labor. In Tonga, however, 75 percent of those who get a university education emigrate. In Micronesia it's 38 percent and in Papua New Guinea 28 percent.

The loss of people has added up to inadequate technical know-how to deal with some climate-related problems in the region - such as coral bleaching - resulting in a lack of "capacity to come up with innovative adaptation measures to regenerate corals," Ekinye said.


To cope with the problem, he said he would like to see the development of "a bank of human resources to attend to requests on short notice from Pacific Island countries that are most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change."

In October, the Pacific Regional Environment Program, with its partners, launched a new online portal, known as the Regional Technical Support Mechanism (RTSM), where scientific and technical experts can register their skills and availability.

Pacific Island countries can also indicate their needs for climate change and disaster risk management work. The initiative includes a special fund for the rapid deployment of professionals when urgently required.

In the long term, development agencies say higher education bodies in the region must also focus on turning out more local graduates with skills and knowledge targeted to Pacific-based climate change and disaster risk management needs.

Right now, "we have difficulty finding the right technical people who also speak the local language and understand the cultural, political and economic context," Duituturaga said.

Currently the Fiji-based University of the South Pacific is the most active in working to educate climate change professionals to post-graduate level and advance regional research through its centre for environment and sustainable development.

(Reporting by Catherine Wilson; editing by Laurie Goering)

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