Q&A: Milan Meetarbhan on small island state science

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Copyright: Jocelyn Carlin / Panos

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  • Island states face challenges, such as climate change, while aiming to develop
  • Many of these are global, so island states expect international support
  • Partnerships between states, and with universities and business are crucial

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The Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) takes place in Apia, Samoa, this week (1-4 September) under the auspices of the UN.

The draft of the outcome document to be agreed at the summit has promised a data revolution and insiders say there will be a big focus on forming new alliances, which may prove challenging.
But the summit has also come under criticism for glossing over science, and experts say better research support will be crucial for SIDS development.

Ten years after the last international SIDS conference held in Mauritius, that country’s ambassador to the UN Milan Meetarbhan tells SciDev.Net about the issues on the table at the latest summit.

Why is the SIDS summit in Samoa important for countries like yours?

It is important to stress that this is not just a SIDS summit but an international conference about SIDS — the whole international community will be discussing issues of interest to SIDS — so it is going to be very significant.

This group of countries is a rather large one; it represents about 20 per cent of UN membership. The group has its own specificities and vulnerabilities and so it is important that the international community recognises this and addresses these issues collectively.

The UN has convened the conference and I hope there will be agreement with the UN system on international cooperation with respect to SIDS issues. I’m not suggesting there should be any new mechanism or any new institutional framework for this mechanism, but it can be within the UN system itself.

Why is it important for the international community to take account of SIDS at this specific time?

What happens in one part of the world can impact life in another. There is shared responsibility for issues which may be of interest to only a specific region or a specific category of states. We are now talking about a new development agenda so it’s important that we take on board the specific requirements of various parts of the world and also of various categories of states. If you want to have a global approach to development issues, you cannot ignore the concerns of any particular region or group.

We’ve come a long way in terms of recognising SIDS as a specific category with specific challenges. What some countries want now is what I would call institutionalisation of this recognition — a specific legal regime which will provide for SIDS as a specific category. There are rather different views on what this would entail both in defining the category and what would be its benefits.

What would you like to see in the outcome document on SIDS?

The most important is this recognition of the specific requirements of the small island states, and a commitment on the part of the international community to assist small island states. I think it’s right that we do this. Universal goals are being discussed as part of the sustainable development goals but at the end of the day any new development agenda will also have to take into consideration differences.

There are countries that have geographical specificities and that face particular challenges, or countries at particular stages of development. The goals and the norms prescribed by the international community must take these into consideration.

At the last summit Mauritius put forward a strategy for science. Some say it did not amount to much subsequently. Will some of these issues be brought forward to this meeting and what is the likelihood that they will be achieved if they could not be achieved before?

Inevitably issues related to science and technology have to be part of any debate on development.

One of the main concerns of SIDS is climate change. For many SIDS this is an existential threat. Even for those where there is no such threat, there are still serious challenges to economic development because of the impact of climate change on tourism, and the need to increase renewable energy as part of the energy mix and so on.

All this is closely related to technologies. But with climate change it is also important to get the science right so that the international community recognises and accepts it, rather than certain countries having an ideological debate.

We have the IPCC report and we have a conference on climate change taking place in Paris next year, and I am sure that the negotiations will be based on actual scientific data which is largely available now to the international community. Any new policies and any new recommendations must be based on scientific data.

But technology will also have an important role for taking adaptation measures and mainstreaming adaption in small island states. SIDS rely on fishing, they rely on renewable energy — we need the technology in those areas.

What will enable SIDS to gain access to the technology?

The theme of this conference is partnership. It is important that we talk about partnerships between SIDS themselves, especially with respect to technology. Many SIDS — even if they are spread across the world — have got a lot in common in terms of their requirements, constraints and resources. For example when we talk about the ocean as a source of energy, then most SIDS would have what they would consider an asset.

Partnerships are important so that SIDS can look together at the technology that can be useful to many of them. Instead of each small island state commissioning new energy-related technologies, SIDS can do it collectively and reduce the costs.

What areas have emerged as the most important in terms of science and technology?

Capacity building is one major area; sharing of knowledge. We are talking about partnerships, between universities, for example, to increase the capacity of SIDS to promote their own development. In addition to renewable energy and disaster risk reduction, a major area in years to come will be the ocean economy.

Technology and investment in technology will play an important role in developing ocean resources. Small island states are often referred to as ‘large ocean states’ because many of them have various degrees of jurisdiction over large maritime areas and these resources are largely untapped.

Fisheries are important but they are not the only economic activity related to the oceans. Conservation is important but it is also about optimising the ocean resources that SIDS have in a sustainable way.

Of course the ocean economy can play a major role in the development not only of SIDS but all states. I am sure that the outcome document from Samoa will address ocean issues. A series of partnership dialogues will take place in Samoa, one of which will be on oceans.

The other ones are energy, water and sustainable development. They will include governments, international organisations, civil society and the private sector. The host country Samoa is very keen on these partnership dialogues being part of the conference. It is very innovative and I think it’s a step in the right direction.

What kind of research is needed before you can develop the ocean economy?

Let me speak for my own country Mauritius. We said in the government programme 2012 to 2015 that we are going to promote the ocean economy as a nucleus of development. The result was the national dialogue on the ocean economy last year. We have now published a roadmap where we have identified what the priority sectors could be and also what we need to do to realise these objectives.

We refer to the ocean economy as including all ocean-related activities, offshore and onshore. Onshore ocean activities include marine services, insurance and so on. But also we believe — and I’m talking about Mauritius now — in the development of applications for maritime transport and exploitation of mineral resources. All this, at the end of the day, is science-based. We need the technology and we need the investment.

With respect to the ocean economy as a whole, we need the science first to know what is there, what is available, what can be done to preserve these resources and to protect the ocean. But we also need to know what technology we can use to optimise the benefits of these economic activities.

What can be done about problems such as coastal erosion, rising sea levels, and other impacts of climate change?

Unfortunately SIDS on their own cannot stop many of the consequences of climate change: ocean acidification and the impact on coral reefs, for instance. Climate change is a global problem and will need a global solution. A solution in the future may prevent further damage. But with respect to the damage that has already occurred, SIDS need to take adaptation measures to reduce the negative impacts on their economies and people’s livelihoods.

Even if we need national measures and national policies, it’s not always possible for SIDS to do that on their own. Many SIDS depend to a large extent on tourism, for example, so the destruction of the reefs and the impact on tourism would be very serious. There is a need for measures both at national and international level.

What kind of joint approach do SIDS have in terms of disaster risk reduction?

This is an important issue for SIDS because all countries will be affected by natural disasters resulting from climate change, but SIDS will be more severely impacted because of the size of their land, territory, and because of the small size of their economies.

We know that natural disasters have had an impact on the economies of many small island states and disaster risk reduction is certainly one of the issues that will be addressed in Samoa. Again, because this is an issue that is important to all states, there will be international cooperation and partnerships to address the risks and for handling the consequences of natural disasters.

What kind changes do you see in attitudes since the last international SIDS conference in Mauritius in 2005?

If you talk to many SIDS you will hear that many of the recommendations made earlier have not been followed through. There is a lot of talk about the need for monitoring and commitments to implementing what has already been agreed.

But what is important this time around is that this is very much part of the global debate. 2015 will be a crucial year. The international community will adopt a new development agenda. In this context hopefully whatever comes out of this conference will be integrated into this agenda, so that is encouraging. On the specific issue of climate change I think there is greater realisation now than ten years ago of the possible consequences of climate change and the impact on some small island states.

What other obstacles do you see ahead?

The challenges are technological and financial but I would say also political. There must be more political commitment to finding global solutions to global problems. You cannot disassociate financing of development from development but it is not all about financing and investment, it’s about national policies, and it’s about international cooperation to progress the issues. But obviously financing for development is a major component of this debate.

What would you see as a successful outcome of the summit?

This could be summed up in the theme of the summit, which is partnership. Basically what SIDS would look for is real, concrete partnerships with other countries, with international organisations and with the private sector to develop their own economies and also to adapt to the consequences of climate change.

The outcome document will identify the major challenges but will not necessarily talk about the partnerships. So what we need is to identify the issues, have commitments from the international community with respect to the issues, but also work on these partnerships — building on the existing ones but also creating new.
Q&As are edited for length and clarity.