Nearly all Pacific islanders vulnerable to sea-level rise

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Seawalls are built to protect coastal towns from the rising sea level. Copyright: Lauren Day/World Bank, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. This image has been cropped.

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  • Sea-level rise threatens 97 per cent of people in 21 Pacific island states
  • UN panel warns of extreme flooding and cyclones in the low-lying Pacific islands
  • Pacific populations’ vulnerabilities need to be highlighted in climate narratives

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[NOUMÉA] About 97 per cent of the population of the Pacific islands is vulnerable to sea-level rise on account of living in proximity to the coast, says a new study.
Rising ocean levels — as ice sheets and glaciers melt from global warming — make extreme flooding and destructive cyclones more common in the low-lying states of the Pacific, a report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had already warned last September.

“As one of only four low-lying coral atoll nations in the world, the failure of the international community to adequately respond to the global climate crisis of its own making holds particularly grave consequences”

Hilda Heine, president of Marshall Islands

“Don’t buy beach-front properties,” scientists and experts who met in Monaco for the release of the IPCC report last month had warned. They estimated that by 2050 more than a billion people would be affected by rising sea levels or water shortages.
The new study published in Plos One corroborates the IPCC report and shows that the 8.2 million people of the 22 Pacific island countries and territories grouping, also referred to as PICTs and includes the fairly large Papua New Guinea with over 5 million people, are much more vulnerable to climate change than thought earlier.

Climate crisis table 2


Summary of coastlines, populations and data sources for PICTs. Credit: Plos One

“Previous studies estimated that only 55 per cent of the populations of Pacific countries and territories lived in the low elevation coastal zone, the land area threatened by sea-level rise,” says Phil Bright, an author of the study and research team leader with the Pacific Community.
But the new study shows about 97 per cent of the populations of the 21 Pacific island countries and territories (excluding Papua New Guinea) or around three million people live within 10 kilometres of the coast, and 90 per cent live within 5 kilometres of the ocean.
Based on the new estimates and on their knowledge of the geography of the region, the team found previous estimates improbably low and hypothesise that majority of people living in the Pacific region reside in this risky, low-elevation coastal zone.

Climate crisis diagram

Proportions of households within 1, 5 and 10 kms. from the coast in the Pacific. Credit: Plos One

Pacific countries are among the most exposed to climate change. Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Tonga are also among the world’s most disaster-prone nations. In the Solomon Islands, at least five reef islands have been lost completely to sea-level rise and coastal erosion while another six islands have been severely eroded.
Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu—low-lying coral atolls and reef islands—are recognised as among the most vulnerable nations in the world to climate change.
Marshall Islands just officially declared a national climate crisis. “As one of only four low-lying coral atoll nations in the world, the failure of the international community to adequately respond to the global climate crisis of its own making holds particularly grave consequences,” said Hilda Heine, president of Marshall Islands, in a statement released last week. 
The new estimation of the Pacific population’s vulnerability combined national census data and globally available data sources. “As national census data vary or [are] very old, our analysis explores differences in population estimates using census data and global models and develops a decision tree to guide future analyses based on the availability and method of national surveys,” the study said.

The 22 Pacific island countries and territories are poorly represented in global analyses of exposure and vulnerability to seaward risks. They are lumped with the global small island developing states or SIDS or the Asia-Pacific. They can even be excluded from global analyses because data are unavailable or because they are too small. More coastal people may be found in a single district in southwest Bangladesh than in the whole Pacific region, the study said. Nevertheless, the exclusion of these 22 countries and territories further marginalises them from global narratives, particularly concerning the consequences of climate change.
With this set of data, available online, the IPCC team hopes that it would help promote better inclusion of Pacific countries in global summaries and lists of vulnerable countries. “Were that to happen, Pacific countries and territories will feature prominently in ‘top ten’ lists of exposed and vulnerable nations and territories,” the study concluded.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.