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Island nations on front line of global struggle to build disaster resilience

by Robert Glasser | UNISDR
Tuesday, 23 May 2017 07:34 GMT

A woman carrying her baby walks past fallen trees in Tanna, after the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu was hit by a powerful cyclone, March 18, 2015. REUTERS/Edgar Su

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Future disaster losses represent an existential threat to small island states, undermining efforts to eradicate poverty and build resilient cities and communities

If you scroll your way down through the full list of approximately 57 Small Island Developing States, or SIDS, it reads like a roll call for prevention, resilience and recovery from recent disasters and near misses.

And the challenges are growing all the time. Earlier this month, Vanuatu and New Caledonia were both hit by Cyclone Donna outside the so-called normal Pacific Cyclone season. There was also the unusual phenomenon of Cyclone Ella forming at the same time.

A study just released by the Inter-American Development Bank states that 4.2 million people on small islands in the Caribbean and Pacific are prone to flooding due to rising sea levels.

Eight months ago, Haiti marshalled its resources to save many lives in advance of Hurricane Matthew, but over 600 died in that storm despite the early warnings and the country is estimated to have lost 32 percent of its GDP in damage to housing, agriculture and critical infrastructure.

This is an extraordinary loss for a low-income country still in recovery mode from the January 2010 earthquake which killed an estimated 220,000 people and inflicted loss and damage equivalent to 120 percent of GDP.

The recent El Niño episode, occurring on the back of the effects of climate change, brought severe drought and floods to many Pacific islands with difficult consequences for food security.

When hurricanes, cyclones, droughts, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis hit a small island developing state, they typically affect the whole population.

Many small islands also have to contend with localised recurring events such as storm surges, landslides and flooding.

Small population sizes can also increase vulnerabilities. If a high percentage of the population is affected, injured or killed, this can have long lasting consequences for recovery and overall development and economic activity.


In Mauritius least year, I attended the African Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction which was hosted for the first time by a small island state, Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean. I heard at first hand the challenges posed by climate change and rising seas for important sectors of a small island economy such as agriculture, fishing and tourism.

Mauritius is not standing idly but spends 2 percent of its GDP, approximately $230 million annually, in reducing disaster risk for its 1.3 million population.

Critical infrastructure is a key focus of this investment, including improved drainage systems, elevated roads, larger reservoirs, drought and cyclone resistant agriculture, and coastal embankments.

Many SIDS like Mauritius have a high proportion of their productive capital located on the coast putting their sustainable development at particular risk.

Future disaster losses represent an existential threat to SIDS, undermining efforts to eradicate poverty and build resilient cities and communities. The expected annual disaster losses in SIDS are equivalent to almost 20 percent of their total social expenditure on areas like health and education.

In other words countries with the greatest need to invest in social development in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals are those most challenged by disaster risk.

Just over a year ago, 13 SIDS from the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Pacific were among the first countries in the world to sign the Paris Agreement. Together they account for 0.02 percent of greenhouse gas emissions but are among those who stand to lose the most from climate change.

Six of the top ten countries with the greatest proportion of their assets at risk to cyclone wind damage are small islands. The 2015 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction reported this could amount to annual average losses of $1.4 billion in the Caribbean by 2050.

SIDS have taken the lead in ensuring coherence in their approach to implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development creating clear links between the Sendai Framework, the Paris Agreement and the SDGs.

SIDS representatives meeting over three days this week in Cancun, Mexico, as part of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, will share practical solutions that have been developed since the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States in 2014 which saw Heads of State adopt a comprehensive blueprint, SIDS Accelerated Modalities of Action or the SAMOA Pathway.

It is this political commitment to resilience and disaster risk management which makes these island states stand out in the global struggle to build resilience to disasters.

Robert Glasser is the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction and head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.