The Tribulations of Climate Change & Coronavirus in Small Island Developing States : A Double Whammy
Pratik Purswani - Senior Advisor, Conflict & Peace Program
Image courtesy: UNDP Climate change adaptation
Human activity has proliferated at such an exponential rate that it has now left an indelible mark on the globe, departing from the Holocene and notoriously accelerating towards a new geological epoch - the Anthropocene. This epoch is a period during which human activity has had a significant - and potentially irreversible - impact on climate and the environment. The effects of Anthropogenization of the earth are so profound that it would not be an overstatement to say that we are already in the middle of a climate catastrophe. This decade has already been afflicted by harrowing events from the Arctic to the Antarctic – be it the feral bushfires in Australia, severe droughts and locust attacks in East Africa, deluge in South Asia, the dry corridor in Central America, or the ferocity of hurricanes striking the islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The unprecedented and destabilizing stress exerted on the planet has intensified the environmental fragilities along with an interconnected rise in global risks like economic vulnerabilities, geopolitical tensions, and societal instabilities. Although the ecological problems do not respect any national boundaries and affect all States,– developed or otherwise - their impact is more pronounced in geographical regions where the population depends on natural resources for their livelihoods. This is particularly true for more fragile regions of the world, of which Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are the most conspicuous example.
Total number of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) as listed by UN-OHRLLS
SIDS are a distinct group of 58 independent islands, of which 38 are members of the United Nations. They are spread across three geographical regions, namely, the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and South China Sea. Notwithstanding their geographical dispersion, these countries face similar socio-economic constraints which have now been exacerbated by their environmental vulnerability due to the rising sea-levels. This has led to a concomitant rise in natural disasters like storm surges, flooding, hurricanes, coastal zone erosion, loss of coral reefs, ocean acidification, etc. High dependence of SIDS on natural resources for their livelihood make the pernicious effects of climate change more palpable. The most likely outcome of this ecosystem change seems to be an increase in community displacement and migration – first internally and then across borders. A 2018 World Bank study estimates that climate change could generate 143 million climate migrants by the year 2050 in just three regions of the world. Placed in an empirical context, this figure indicates a perplexing number of approximately 8 to 10 people being displaced every minute due to climate related events. It is imperative to note that these numbers are in addition to the millions of people already fearing threats of displacement due to economic, social, political or other reasons. Such displacement en masse threatens to increase tensions over resource use and directly affects the geopolitical stability in the region. Such a volatile situation for SIDS is highly undesirable and calls for unified international cooperation to contain and mitigate the effects of climate change.
In addition, SIDS face a myriad of other challenges that frustrate their sustainable development efforts. Limited production capacities, lack of economies of scale, poor capacity building, heavy reliance on imports, food insecurity, political instability, etc. are some of the other reasons that make socio-economic growth more difficult to achieve. Further, there are high rates of diet-related diseases, making it difficult to attain the Sustainable Development Goals of alleviating poverty and reducing hunger. All these factors become the cause of instability in the region and drivers of migration, as acknowledged by the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. Although this declaration indicates that there is a global consensus on this issue, it lacks effective action or enforcement. To add to the misery, the recent SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic situation has put the world on a global sabbatical. While we face the biggest threat to international peace and security, the United Nations as a global governance body has been missing in action with a glaring omission to speak with a unified voice in its 75-year history. CoVID-19 as a human development crisis has been superimposed on the existing unresolved challenges of the SIDS, placing an incredibly high burden on them. Their remote locations and small sizes not only have an impact on health delivery, but also on global health priorities and the ability to attract international awareness and subsequent funding. The pandemic is disproportionately affecting the lives and well-being of the poorest and most vulnerable in these regions. The resultant tribulations of a health emergency like CoVID-19 with the ‘threat multiplier’ of climate change is adding to the socio-economic stress on these fragile island states. The sudden, grave and prolonged impact of CoVID-19 has also had a direct impact on tourism in SIDS, the industry that they are highly dependent upon. With no alternative sources of foreign exchange, the loss of revenue from tourism has a direct impact on the GDP and external debt. The consequences of such stressors on the peace and security of SIDS could be cataclysmic.
As we approach the half-way mark of the year, we observe patience wearing thin. The global weather has changed – atmospherically and metaphorically – provoking high levels of mistrust in authorities, conspiracy thinking, fuelling movements against physical distancing, and reluctance towards behavioural change. The premonition of a second-wave is not a remote possibility anymore, perhaps CoVID-19 becoming another endemic virus in our communities is also likely. While every country remains vulnerable to crises, their ability to respond differs significantly. Their vulnerability is guided by indicators like preparedness, healthcare infrastructure, social protection, political stability, capacity to tolerate economic inactivity, access to the internet, etc. SIDS face most of these challenges, impeding their efforts to tackle a global pandemic while simultaneously responding to climate change impacts. Pacific Islands of Vanuatu, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Tonga were recently hit by Cyclone Harold - a category five superstorm. The inevitability of moving to evacuation centres makes social distancing difficult to implement. Additionally, there were logistical challenges in making humanitarian aid available due to the lockdown in many regions of the world. This is a grave concern for SIDS, that do not have sufficient resources of their own to deal with two crises at once.
Picture credits: World Health Organization (WHO)
CoVID-19 has certainly proven to be the low probability, high intensity ‘game-changer’ for the world. All the countries in the world - developed or developing, large or small, coastal or landlocked – have been impacted in an unprecedented way. Developed countries may find it easier to offer relief packages for their economies, but the same is not true for SIDS. Erratic weather patterns attributable to climate change add to the complexity. To that end, SIDS are witnessing a double whammy, partly at our expense. Firstly, they are the most affected by climate change while they are the least responsible for it. Secondly, access to healthcare on these islands is restricted and their economies have suffered outstandingly due to their reliance on tourism and natural resources. The intersecting crises have resulted in unparalleled levels of inequality, economic uncertainty and climate destabilization, as well as surge in populism, conflict, and mounting public health threats. While the current lockdown is focused on averting the ongoing health crisis, any compromise on the environmental aspect in the process could lead to another serious socio-ecological adversity, including famine and disaster displacement. To tackle the compounded effect of these two events, we need to rethink our next steps instead of going back to the ‘business-as-usual’ model. This temporary shift of gears should be utilized to realign our focus on local community perspectives and resuscitate the promotion of health security, equity and environmental protection. This global sabbatical should not push us back to our same old behavioural patterns which led us to this situation in the first place.
Pratik is currently reading Public International Law at Leiden University, with a special focus on environmental security. His previous work experience involved meticulous research and litigation internships with environmental law organisations in India. His endeavour has been to systemically bring about a change through advocacy, activism, and reformative policy research.