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Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

Island Agenda 2004 +

4 Environment and natural resources

Freshwater resources

Managing wastes

© Gillian Cambers

Waste management is an important and growing issue in many small-island situations. Some dimensions of the problem as perceived by local people have been discussed on the global Internet forum of Small Islands Voice (see page 8). 

In an initial posting from San Andrés in the Caribbean, a respondent described some of the problems encountered in disposing of wastes in the archipelago, and wondered what the situation was like in other small island settings. Many thought-provoking responses were received, with examples of local actions from such islands as the Cook Islands and Palau in the Pacific, Chumbe Island and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, and Bahamas, Cuba and St Lucia in the Caribbean.

Among points raised was the importance of encouraging islanders to see wastes as resources and not just as problems, and of finding ways to avoid making wastes. Economic tools for encouraging recycling include that under development in Kiribati on a ‘Beverage container deposit system’. Specified bottles and aluminium drink cans have a 5 cent deposit paid on them at import, which is passed down through the commercial system to the consumer – at a fixed level of 5 cents. The consumer then returns the empty beverage container to a collection point, which buys it back at 4 cents per item, with one cent going to help finance the operation. In this way, these easily recyclable elements are removed from the waste stream by use of a simple economic tool. 

Because of their small size and particular geological, topographical and climatic conditions, many small island developing states face severe constraints in terms of both the quality and quantity of freshwater. This is particularly the case for low-lying coral-based islands, where groundwater supplies are limited and are protected only by a thin permeable layer of soil. Even where rainfall is abundant, access to clean water has been restricted by the lack of adequate storage facilities and effective delivery systems. In a somewhat analogous way, the management and disposal of wastes is a critical issue for many small-island countries, with acute problems associated with both sea- and land-based sources of pollution.

UNESCO’s contribution to the development of approaches for sound water management is primarily through the International Hydrological Programme (IHP) and through the UN system-wide World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP), as well through the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme

At the regional level, in the Pacific, a series of studies have been carried out under the aegis of the IHP Pacific Working Group, including work on catchments and communities (Solomon Islands, Vanuatu), groundwater pollution (Tonga) and atoll groundwater recharge (Kiribati). Field work in Kiribati has focused on freshwater groundwater lens recharge at Bonriki, part of the coral island of South Tarawa, including assessment of ground-water recharge in the presence of coconut trees and salinization effects caused by over-pumping of groundwater. Work at South Tarawa has also served to highlight two very widespread problems in freshwater management in small island situations: those of drought (a frequent event in small coral island nations across the Indian and Pacific Oceans) and of conflicts in groundwater use and management.

Placing work on water resources within the local socio-cultural context has included strong community involvement in the monitoring of groundwater pollution on the island of Lifuka in Tonga and the use of performance theatre in communicating with local people on water quality issues in Vanuatu. 

Future work proposals were elaborated at the IHP–SOPAC (South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission) regional meeting in Fiji in October 2003. A multi-institutional partnership has been agreed for a long-term regional training programme for hydrological technicians and scientists. 

Water resources of small islands

Within the IHP, an early (1991) multi-authored practical guide was designed to assist technicians, hydrologists, engineers and managers in the identification, assessment, development, management and protection of water resources on small islands. Case studies included information from Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Bermuda, Majuro atoll in the Marshall Islands, Mauritius and Seychelles. The water resources of small tropical islands have also featured in one of a series of illustrated non-technical IHP reports on water-related issues of the humid tropics and other warm humid regions.

During the last decade, IHP work related to freshwater resources in small islands has included both reviews in particular technical areas and support to field operations, including training activities of various kinds. Among the technical issues addressed is that of groundwater contamination by sewage and sanitation systems on tropical islands. 

And at the inter-regional level, the freshwater resources of small islands will be featured in the second interagency World Water Development Report, to be published in 2006.

Facing up to natural hazards and disasters

Many small island developing countries are particularly vulnerable to various types of natural hazards and disasters: volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, floods, hurricanes and cyclones. To the extent that more than half of the 25 most disaster-prone countries are SIDS.

UNESCO’s work focuses on efforts for identifying areas subject to natural hazards, improving risk assessment methods, and encouraging preparedness for hazardous events. Work in the Pacific has focused on support to community-driven natural disaster/hazard reduction and mitigation in Tonga, Vanuatu and elsewhere, in collaboration with Massey University in New Zealand and other partners. For many years, UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) has sponsored the International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific (and its work of disseminating tsunami watches, warnings and advisory bulletins), and the International Tsunami Information Center, which collects data and maintains records on tsunamogenic events.

For the past decade-and-a-half in the Caribbean, within a project on coastal and beach stability in the Lesser Antilles, coastal planners, governments and NGOs have been monitoring beaches and coastlines to determine wise developmental practices, in the face of the effects of hurricanes and storm surges on coastal strips. This work is now being extended to other island regions. Also in the Caribbean, a number of collaborative activities have been undertaken on educational and communication aspects of disaster mitigation, such as the preparation of a disaster preparedness manual for Caribbean schools through a joint initiative with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency

Preparing for the worst

For many small-island countries, one important issue at the interface of education, science, culture and communication is the following: How can scientific knowledge and understanding, local content and the use of local languages be woven together in the warp and the weft of the educational tissue of the country?

One example of a response to this generic challenge is a volcano-awareness programme for schools on Niuafo’ou Island in the Kingdom of Tonga, undertaken as part of UNESCO’s activities of natural disaster preparedness and prevention. Niuafo’ou is a still active volcanic island, whose periodic eruptions (e.g. in 1867, 1886, 1912, 1929, 1935-1936, 1943, 1946, 1985) led to the destruction of many plantations and individual villages. As a result of the 1946 eruption, Niuafo’ou was evacuated, with the government finally allowing the islanders to return home in 1958.

Informing the young people of their volcanic heritage – and preparing for future hazards – has been approached through a project sponsored by UNESCO-Apia. A series of innovative learning materials have been prepared and tested, including a teacher/student resource booklet (below, page 8 of booklet) and four large format posters. These materials provide information on volcanoes in general and on Niuafo’ou in particular, and suggest educational and learning activities such as an evacuation game, community mapping and discussions on response strategies in the event of future eruptions.

Niuafo'ou 'etau mo'ungaafi
Ko Niuafo'ou ko e motu fa'u 'e he 
mo'ungaafi, na'e fo'u ia 'i he ta'u 'e 
lauimiliona kuo hili'. Na'e toutou 
mapunda ia 'o fo'u ai 'a e motu ko eni.

Ko e motu fo'u 'e he mo'unga afi 'i 
he fukahi tahi' 'oku mo' ui 'a hono 
kelekele pe a ma' ui'ui foki ai 
'a e 'akau mo e mohuku'.

A volcano erupts 
under the water on 
the sea-bed.
Many eruptions 
happen, lava cools 
around the vent and 
forms a lava shield. 
With many eruptions 
the volcano grows until 
it rises above the sea.

Responding to sea-level change

Observing the Earth System

Over the last decade, progress has been made in advancing international political and scientific cooperation for monitoring and understanding what is happening to the planet’s life-support systems, as reflected in this handful of vignettes and associated acronyms. 

In the late 1980s, the increasing evidence of sea-level rise was a major trigger in focusing world-wide attention on the implications of global climate change and on the special vulnerabilities of many small-island states to climate change. The Maldives took the initiative for developing the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which in 1989 adopted the Malé Declaration proclaiming that ‘Sea-level rise threatens the very survival of some small island states’ and pressing the international community to take immediate and effective measures to reduce the greenhouse effect. 

A decade-and-a-half later, the adverse effects of climate change and sea-level rise continue to threaten the sustainable development, livelihoods and existence of many small-island nations. Faced with the implications of available scenarios, many have drawn up plans to protect their coastlines, through such measures as the construction of dykes. The Maldives, with its densely populated main island of Malé, has constructed an artificial island for some of its citizens. And some Pacific islands, like Tuvalu and Kiribati, have been discussing plans for relocating their people to Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere within the next half century. 

Meanwhile, the international scientific community has strived to advance the methods and procedures for the long-term monitoring and improved understanding of global environmental change, as a support to policy and management action.

Gauging sea level rise

Since 1933, the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PMSLM) has been responsible for the collection, publication, analysis and interpretation of sea-level data from the global network of tide gauges. As refl ected in a sampling of stations with long-term records of annual mean sea levels, there is a general but by no means universal upward trend, but with considerable inter-annual (as well as seasonal) variability. The estimates of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest that the sea level rose globally during the twentieth century by about 10–20 cm, a rate of between 1–2 mm/year. In its third assessment (2001), the IPCC projects global sea levels to change by 9 to 88 cm during the present century (i.e. between 0.9 and 8.8 mm/year). In terms of data sets, many of the island records are relatively short compared to those from continental coastlines. At least 20 years of data are required for even a crude determination of a long-term change, and few island stations possess such data as yet. 


From an article on ‘Sea level Change: Meeting the 
’ by current IOC President David Pugh in the 
quarterly UNESCO journal Nature & Resource. Each 
record has been offset vertically for presentation purposes.


The Global Ocean Observing System is a global network of ships, 
buoys (fixed and drifting), subsurface floats, tide gauges and satellites 
that collect real time data on the physical state as well as the 
biogeochemical profile of the world’s oceans. It comprises a measuring 
subsystem, a data and information management subsystem, and a 
subsystem for contributing to the production and diffusion of various kinds
of products: measurements and forecasts of changes in water level, 
positions and strengths of currents, wave heights and forecasts of 
unusually high waves, sea ice measurements and coverage, rainfall 
measurements and forecasts (droughts and floods), maps and forecasts 
of harmful algal blooms, assessments of the vulnerability of fish stocks 
and farms, forecasts of likely weather or climate-related disease.


Global Ocean Observing 
System for Climate
Tide Gauge Network 58% complete
3°x 3° Argo Profiling Float Array 35% complete
5°x 5° Surface Drifting Buoy Array 45% complete
Moored Buoy Existing  Planned
Ocean Reference Station Existing Planned
High Resolution XBT* and Flux Line Existing Planned
Frequently Repeated XBT Line Existing Planned
Carbon Inventory & Deep Ocean Line Global Survey @ 10 years

From Space: Sea Surface Temperature, Sea Surface Height, Surface Vector
Wind, Sea Ice, and Ocean Colour
*XBT: Expendable Bathythermograph (instrument used to measure temperature
 as a function of water depth in the ocean)
Source of graphic: Courtesy of NOAA Of. ce of GlobalPrograms. 
See: http://www.oco.noaa.gov/, under "observing system" ->"system design" (20 October 2004)

Studying and stewarding coastal and marine resources

Small-island nations have a large coastal area to land mass ratio; they are largely coastal entities. Their coastal environment is therefore particularly important, both socio-economically and culturally. Typically, there are high levels of conflict in the demands for coastal space and its resources. High and increasing population densities along the coast, as well as the increased development of economic sectors such as tourism, often accentuate this conflict. 

For the size of their land mass and population, small-island nations often have large marine exclusive economic zones, which have vastly extended the fisheries and other marine resources available to small island developing states. Potential benefits may be great. But so too are the obstacles and challenges faced by the countries concerned in seeking to grasp and optimize these potential benefits. 

For both terrestrial and marine environments, difficulties in planning and implementing effective integrated approaches to resource management are reflected in over-exploitation of particular resources, pollution and degradation of land and water ecosystems, and acute conflicts between competing resource uses.

   Divers using the intercept 
line transect technique, 
one of the basic methods 
used to assess the status 
of coral reefs. © Jos Hill

Within UNESCO, the IOC provides a main focus for improving scientific knowledge and understanding of oceanic and near-shore processes. Through the organization and coordination of scientific programmes and projects, support is provided to Member States in building-up capacities and in the design and implementation of policies for the ocean and marine coastal zones. Activities include a programme on ocean sciences, with three main interactive lines of work: oceans and climate; science for ocean ecosystems and marine environmental protection; and marine science for integrated coastal area management. Among the topics addressed are ocean carbon sequestration, benthic indicators, coral bleaching and reef monitoring, land–ocean–atmosphere biochemistry, harmful algal blooms, pelagic fish populations. Other initiatives include the testing of indicators as a tool in integrated coastal area management, participation in the multi-institutional Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, and co-patronage of the Global Forum on Oceans, Coasts and Islands, created to reinforce the implementation of commitments made at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002

Also within the IOC, the International Data and Information Exchange programme facilitates and promotes the free exchange of oceanographic data and information amongst Member States, and also assists countries in capacity building for the purpose of managing and applying available data. Capacity enhancement through partnerships with the global community is not only a cross-cutting theme within IOC, but is central to the Training, Education and Mutual Assistance (TEMA) programme with its aim of developing local expertise and capacity at all levels in the areas of marine science and resource management. Major success stories have been the ‘Training Through Research’ programmes conducted at sea on board research vessels, and the ‘distance-hands on’ training activities on harmful algal blooms.

Sustainable livelihoods and coral reef resources

While most people tend to agree that coral reefs need to be protected, the complex relationships between coastal people and the reefs they often depend on – and the value of reefs in reducing coastal poverty – is only just beginning to be understood. Consequently, although much attention has been paid to coral reef conservation, otherwise well-meaning efforts have sometimes failed to fully involve the local population in such initiatives.

There is a growing recognition that coral reef conservation cannot meet its objectives without better consideration of poverty issues and the sustainable livelihoods of the poor reef-dependent communities. One of the policy drivers behind understanding these relationships has been the recognition that coral reef management is unlikely to be successful if it is done in isolation from the needs and aspirations of the people who depend on those reefs to survive. Management measures that ignore such relationships are in danger of either being circumvented or of driving the poor into greater hardship.

These are among the fi ndings of a Reef Livelihoods Assessment project on the complex relations between coastal communities and coral reefs, including the values of reefs to the coastal poor, funded by the UK Department for International Development. Results and recommendations have been presented in a two-volume report released by the IOC in late 2003. The report provides an overview of reef-related benefit flows to poor coastal communities, supported by four case-studies and experience from various reef locations in the Indian Ocean region. 

The IOC is also centrally involved in the multi-institutional Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN), which seeks to build capacity of reef users and stakeholders to collect and use ecological and socio-economic data on the status and trends in coral reefs and to raise awareness and support management interventions reversing the declining state of coral reefs. Among the outputs of the network is the biennial assessment Status of the Coral Reefs of the World and manuals for ecological and socio-economic reef monitoring.


Coping with beach erosion


Beach monitoring at
Woodford Hill on the 
northeastern coast of

Coastline changes due to natural processes and human intervention represent a major concern to coastal planners in small islands the world over, and indeed of ordinary citizens who have real or potential interests in beaches and seaside property. In the Caribbean region, one collaborative research activity has focused since the mid-1980s on issues related to coast and beach stability. Methods have been developed for the measurement of shoreline changes, and practical guidelines prepared and tested on what can be done in response to disappearing and degrading beaches. 

Among the products of this work is a series of ten illustrated booklets on shoreline change in Caribbean islands. The booklets represent the dedicated work of government agencies, non-governmental organizations, teachers, students and individuals. Together, they have carefully measured the changes in their beaches over a number of years, and have combined scientific research and monitoring with educational and environmental stewardship activities of various kinds. Each booklet combines generic and island-specific information, on such issues as natural and human forces that affect beach areas, national initiatives to monitor and manage changes, recommendations on wise practices for a healthy beach. In addition to Antigua & Barbuda (front and back cover reproduced below), individual booklets have been prepared for Anguilla, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, Nevis, St Kitts, St Lucia, St Vincent & the Grenadines, and Turks & Caicos Islands.

And more recently, this work of monitoring and measuring beaches has been extended to small islands in other regions, including the Cook Islands, Palau and the Seychelles. 

Intersectoral Cooperation and the CSI Platform

The Environment and Development in Coastal Regions and Small Islands (CSI) initiative was established in 1995–1996, with a principal aim of catalysing joint action among fi ve programme sectors in headquarters and field offi ces in the various regions of the world. Conceived as a platform, it serves as a test bed to explore options, overcome barriers and demonstrate solutions. Its three main areas of activity are field projects addressing complementary facets of a single shared problem; UNESCO chairs and university twinning arrangements that pool cross-disciplinary expertise; and multilingual Internet-based forums (see pages 7 and 8). 


Caring for island biodiversity

UNESCO’s interest in biological diversity dates back to the early days of the Organization, under its fi rst Director General, biologist Julian Huxley. Among the early activities was joining with the French Government and the Swiss League for Nature in the founding of IUCN, the World Conservation Union, in 1948.

In terms of island biodiversity, UNESCO’s continuing concern is rooted in two complementary international initiatives for the conservation of biological diversity.

The Convention for the Protection of the World’s Natural and Cultural Heritage is a binding legal instrument, which provides a permanent legal, financial and administrative framework for international cooperation in contributing to the protection of the world’s natural and cultural heritage. The focus is on unique sites of outstanding and universal value. The World Heritage List includes sites listed specifi cally for their biological processes and biodiversity values such as two sites in Cuba, Mornes Trois Pitons National Park (Dominica), Galápagos National Park and Marine Reserve (Ecuador), Pitons Management Area (St Lucia), Aldabra Atoll and the Vallée de Mai (Seychelles) and East Rennell (Solomon Islands).


Pitons Management Area in St Lucia is among the new natural sites inscribed on the World Heritage List by the World Heritage Committee at its twenty-eighth session held in Suzhou (China) in July 2004. The 2,909-ha site near the town of Soufriere, includes the Pitons, two volcanic spires rising side by side from the sea (770-m and 743-m high), linked by the Piton Mitan ridge. The volcanic complex includes a geothermal fi eld with sulphurous fumeroles and hot springs. Coral reefs cover almost 60% of the site’s marine area. © S. Engelmann



The Galápagos Islands in Ecuador hold an emblematic place in island biodiversity, having played a key role in the development of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. The archipelago was designated as a biosphere reserve in 1984 and is also one of the most renowned sites on the World Heritage list. Among recent research initiatives is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre-United Nations Foundation project on the control of alien species in the archipelago. In terms of endemic species, the Galápagos Islands harbour the world’s only species of marine iguana, Amblyrhynchus cristatus, shown here.

The World Network of Biosphere Reserves, within the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme, currently comprises 459 sites in 97 countries and territories, including Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mauritius, US Virgin Islands. At best, biosphere reserves are sites of excellence to explore and demonstrate approaches to conservation and sustainable development, with associated research, monitoring, training and education and the involvement of local people as the driving force for conservation.

In addition to these two concepts and tools for promoting the in situ conservation of biological diversity, other activities include studies on marine living resources within the IOC (e.g. coral reefs, benthic fauna, harmful marine algae), work related to the educational and ethical dimensions of biodiversity, and issues at the interface of biological diversity and cultural diversity. 

Biodiversity conservation in small islands has also been addressed in a range of activities within the Coastal Regions and Small Islands (CSI) Platform. These include contributions to the discussion forum on wise coastal practices and field experience in such locations as Portland Bight in Jamaica, Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea, Saanapu-Sataoa in Samoa, Cousin Island in Seychelles, Chumbe Island in Tanzania and Surin Islands in the Andaman Sea, Thailand.

Biodiversity conservation: Current and planned activities

  • Further development of the World Heritage marine programme, including three pilot projects each containing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and small islands: Central Pacifi c Islands and Atolls, Eastern Tropical Pacifi c Seascape, and Southern Caribbean Islands Group. Capacity building in heritage conservation (e.g. in western Indian Ocean region) and the mapping of biodiversity hotspots (e.g. in the Pacific), to build knowledge of potential World Heritage.

  • Promoting the use of biosphere reserves to demonstrate approaches to sustainable development and biodiversity conservation in small-island settings, including setting-up of core protected areas in both marine and terrestrial Ecosystems. Providing support to potential biosphere reserves in small-island countries, including community-based conservation areas (e.g. through the ASPACO project: Asia–Pacific Cooperation for the Sustainable Use of Renewable Resources in Biosphere Reserves and Similarly Managed Areas) and follow-up to regional MAB planning meetings (e.g. in Dominica in December 2003).

  • Contributing to fi eld projects on the eradication of invasive species and on the effectiveness of protected area management in small islands (e.g. World Heritage supported work on Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles).

  • Strengthening collaborative activities on island biodiversity with the Convention on Biological Diversity and a range of other international conventions, agreements and organizations.

Renewable energy

The development of alternative energy systems is a crucial issue for many small islands. UNESCO’s long-standing work on harnessing clean energy sources was boosted in the 1990s by the World Solar Summit process (1993–1995) and subsequently through the Organization’s contribution to the UN World Solar Programme (1996–2005). Capacity building aspects include the Global Renewable Energy and Training Programme (GREET) and a series of learning materials on new and renewable energies. 

An ongoing initiative of UNESCO and UNDP – through their respective Apia offices, and in collaboration with SOPAC, USP and other bodies – provides support to a range of regional and national Pacific sustainable energy projects, such as a national energy policy and strategic action plan for Tokelau, options for uninterrupted power for Apolima Island (Samoa), increased use of renewable energies in the Cook Islands and training in photovoltaic solar home systems.

Toolkits have recently been published on such topics as solar voltaic systems and geothermal energy. A video and associated booklet (Rays of Hope) highlights the importance of renewable energy in the Pacific, with interviews and project insights from several countries.

Future UNESCO work on renewable energy includes support to a capacity building programme in the Caribbean.

INSULA and insular energy

Among the international NGOs that work closely with UNESCO, the International Scientific Council for Island Development (INSULA) has a strong programme on renewable energy, in Europe and the eastern Atlantic in particular. This work includes the organization of international conferences and the diffusion of conference publications and other information materials, such as those related to an Island Solar Summit and an associated Island Solar Agenda (Tenerife, May 1999), a Euro-Caribbean conference on sustainable energies (St Lucia, May 2002) and follow-up discussion forum, and an international conference on renewable energy systems for islands, tourism and water desalination (Crete, May 2003). Several issues of INSULA’s International Journal of Island Affairs have been focused on renewable energy, such as policies and strategies for desalination and renewable energies (January 2001) and biosciences and biotechnologies (February 2003).

Other INSULA-sponsored activities include technical support to renewable energy projects at the field level. An ongoing example is that on promoting energy self-sufficiency for El Hierro in the Canary Islands (designated as a bio-sphere reserve in 2002). This involves a three-pronged programme of energy saving, electricity production and transport, with support from the European Commission and a consortium of partners coordinated by the Instituto Tecnologico de Canarias.


Thermal water heaters 
have been installed on 
the rooftops of many 
houses in Cyprus. From 
Renewable Energy of the
Publishing, 1996).
© Madanjeet Singh
© Peter Coles

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