IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

16.2.3 Other stresses

Climate change and sea-level rise are not unique contributors to the extreme vulnerability of small islands. Other factors include socio-economic conditions, natural resource and space limitations, and the impacts of natural hazards such as tsunami and storms. In the Pacific, vulnerability is also a function of internal and external political and economic processes which affect forms of social and economic organisation that are different from those practiced traditionally, as well as attempts to impose models of adaptation that have been developed for Western economies, without sufficient thought as to their applicability in traditional island settings (Cocklin, 1999).

Socio-economic stresses

Socio-economic contributors to island vulnerability include external pressures such as terms of trade, impacts of globalisation (both positive and negative), financial crises, international conflicts, rising external debt, and internal local conditions such as rapid population growth, rising incidence of poverty, political instability, unemployment, reduced social cohesion, and a widening gap between poor and rich, together with the interactions between them (ADB, 2004).

Most settlements in small islands, with the exception of some of the larger Melanesian and Caribbean islands, are located in coastal locations, with the prime city or town also hosting the main port, international airport and centre of government activities. Heavy dependence on coastal resources for subsistence is also a major feature of many small islands.

Rapid and unplanned movements of rural and outer-island residents to the major centres is occurring throughout small islands, resulting in deteriorating urban conditions, with pressure on access to urban services required to meet basic needs. High concentrations of people in urban areas create various social, economic and political stresses, and make people more vulnerable to short-term physical and biological hazards such as tropical cyclones and diseases. It also increases their vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and sea-level rise (Connell, 1999, 2003).

Globalisation is also a major stress, though it has been argued that it is nothing new for many small islands, since most have had a long history of colonialism and, more latterly, experience of some of the rounds of transformation of global capitalism (Pelling and Uitto, 2001). Nevertheless, in the last few years, the rate of change and growth of internationalisation have increased, and small islands have had to contend with new forms of extra-territorial economic, political and social forces such as multinational corporations, transnational social movements, international regulatory agencies, and global communication networks. In the present context, these factors take on a new relevance, as they may influence the vulnerability of small islands and their adaptive capacity (Pelling and Uitto, 2001; Adger et al., 2003a).

Pressure on island resources

Most small islands have limited sources of freshwater. Atoll countries and limestone islands have no surface water or streams and are fully reliant on rainfall and groundwater harvesting. Many small islands are experiencing water stress at the current levels of rainfall input, and extraction of groundwater is often outstripping supply. Moreover, pollution of groundwater is often a major problem, especially on low-lying islands. Poor water quality affects human health and carries water-borne diseases. Water quality is just one of several health issues linked to climate variability and change and their potential effects on the well-being of the inhabitants of small islands (Ebi et al., 2006).

It is also almost inevitable that the ecological systems of small islands, and the functions they perform, will be sensitive to the rate and magnitude of climate change and sea-level rise, especially where exacerbated by human activities (e.g., ADB, 2004, in the case of the small islands in the Pacific). Both terrestrial ecosystems on the larger islands and coastal ecosystems on most islands have been subjected to increasing degradation and destruction in recent decades. For instance, analysis of coral reef surveys over three decades has revealed that coral cover across reefs in the Caribbean has declined by 80% in just 30 years, largely as a result of continued pollution, sedimentation, marine diseases, and over-fishing (Gardner et al., 2003).

Interactions between human and physical stresses

External pressures that contribute to the vulnerability of small islands to climate change include energy costs, population movements, financial and currency crises, international conflicts, and increasing debt. Internal processes that create vulnerability include rapid population growth, attempts to increase economic growth through exploitation of natural resources such as forests, fisheries and beaches, weak infrastructure, increasing income inequality, unemployment, rapid urbanisation, political instability, a growing gap between demand for and provision of health care and education services, weakening social capital, and economic stagnation. These external and internal processes are related and interact in complex ways to heighten the vulnerability of island social and ecological systems to climate change.

Natural hazards of hydrometeorological origin remain an important stressor and cause impacts on the economies of small islands that are disproportionally large (Bettencourt et al., 2006). The devastation of Grenada following the passage of Hurricane Ivan on 7 September 2004 is a powerful illustration of the reality of small-island vulnerability (Nurse and Moore, 2005). In less than 8 hours, the country’s vital socio-economic infrastructure, including housing, utilities, tourism-related facilities and subsistence and commercial agricultural production, suffered incalculable damage. The island’s two principal foreign-exchange earners – tourism and nutmeg production – suffered heavily. More than 90% of hotel guest rooms were either completely destroyed or damaged, while more than 80% of the island’s nutmeg trees were lost. One of the major challenges with regard to hydrometeorological hazards is the time it takes to recover from them. In the past it was common for socio-ecological systems to recover from hazards, as these were sufficiently infrequent and/or less damaging. In the future, climate change may create a situation where more intense and/or more frequent extreme events may mean there is less time in which to recover. Sequential extreme events may mean that recovery is never complete, resulting in long-term deteriorations in affected systems, e.g., declines in agricultural output because soils never recover from salinisation; urban water systems and housing infrastructure deteriorating because damage cannot be repaired before the next extreme event.