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

16.5.2 Adaptation options and priorities: examples from small island states

What are the adaptation options and priorities for small islands, and especially for small island states? Since the TAR there have been a number of National Communications to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) from small island states that have assessed their own vulnerability to climate change and in-country adaptation strategies. These communications give an insight into national concerns about climate change, the country’s vulnerability, and the priorities that different small island states place on adaptation options. They also suggest that to date adaptation has been reactive, and has been centred around responses to the effects of climate variability and particularly climate extremes. Moreover, the range of measures considered, and the priority they are assigned, appear closely linked to the country’s key socio-economic sectors, their key environmental concerns, and/or the most vulnerable areas to climate change and/or sea-level rise. Some island states such as Malta (MRAE, 2004) emphasise potential adaptations to economic factors including power generation, transport, and waste management, whereas agriculture and human health figure prominently in communications from the Comoros (GDE, 2002), Vanuatu (Republic of Vanuatu, 1999), and St. Vincent and the Grenadines (NEAB, 2000). In these cases, sea-level rise is not seen as a critical issue, though it is in the low-lying atoll states such as Kiribati, Tuvalu, Marshall Islands and the Maldives. The Maldives provides one example of the sectors it sees as being the most vulnerable to climate change, and the adaptive measures required to reduce vulnerability and enhance resilience (see Box 16.5).

Box 16.5. Adaptive measures in the Maldives

Adaptation options in low-lying atoll islands which have been identified as especially vulnerable, are limited, and response measures to climate change or its adverse impacts are potentially very costly. In the Maldives adaptation covers two main types of activities. First, there are adaptive measures involving activities targeted at specific sectors where climate change impacts have been identified. Second, there are adaptive measures aimed at enhancing the capacity of the Maldives to effectively implement adaptations to climate change and sea-level rise. Within these two activities the Maldivian Ministry of Home Affairs, Housing and Environment has identified several vulnerable areas and adaptive measures that could be implemented to reduce climate change impacts.

Source: MOHA (2001).

Vulnerable area Adaptation response 
Land loss and beach erosion Coastal protection Population consolidation i.e., reduction in number of inhabited islands Ban on coral mining  
Infrastructure and settlement damage Protection of international airport Upgrading existing airports Increase elevation in the future  
Damage to coral reefs Reduction of human impacts on coral reefs Assigning protection status for more reefs  
Damage to tourism industry Coastal protection of resort islands Reduce dependency on diving as a primary resort focus Economy diversification  
Agriculture and food security Explore alternate methods of growing fruits, vegetables and other foods Crop production using hydroponic systems  
Water resources Protection of groundwater Increasing rainwater harvesting and storage capacity Use of solar distillation Management of storm water Allocation of groundwater recharge areas in the islands  
Lack of capacity to adapt (both financial and technical)  Human resource development Institutional strengthening Research and systematic observation Public awareness and education  

In spite of differences in emphasis and sectoral priorities, there are three common themes.

  • First, all National Communications emphasise the urgency for adaptation action and the need for financial resources to support such action.
  • Second, freshwater is seen as a critical issue in all small island states, both in terms of water quality and quantity.Water is a multi-sectoral resource that impinges on all facets of life and livelihood, including security. It is seen as a problem at present and one that will increase in the future.
  • Third, many small island states, including all the Least Developed Countries (Small Island Developing States, SIDS), see the need for more integrated planning and management, be that related to water resources, the coastal zone, human health, or tourism.

In a case study of tourism in Fiji, for instance, Becken (2004) argues that the current tourism policy focuses on adaptation and measures that are predominantly reactive rather than proactive, whereas climate change measures that offer win-win situations should be pursued. These include adaptation, mitigation, and wider environmental management measures; examples being reforestation of native forest, water conservation, and the use of renewable energy resources (Becken, 2004). A similar view is held by Stern (2007), who notes that climate change adaptation policies and measures, if implemented in a timely and efficient manner, can generate valuable co-benefits such as enhanced energy security and environmental protection.

The need to implement adaptation measures in small islands with some urgency has recently been reinforced by Nurse and Moore (2005), and was also highlighted in the TAR, where it was suggested that risk-reduction strategies, together with other sectoral policy initiatives, in areas such as sustainable development planning, disaster prevention and management, integrated coastal zone management, and health care planning could be usefully employed (Nurse et al., 2001). Since then a number of projects on adaptation in several small islands have adopted this suggestion. These projects aim to build the capacities of individuals, communities and governments so that they are more able to make informed decisions about adaptation to climate change and to enhance their adaptive capacity in the long run.

There are few published studies that have attempted to estimate climate change adaptation costs for small islands, and much more work needs to be undertaken on the subject. The most recent study was conducted by Ng and Mendelsohn (2005), who found coastal protection to be the least-cost strategy to combat sea-level rise in Singapore, under three scenarios. They noted that the annual cost of shoreline protection would increase as sea-level rises, and would range from US$0.3–5.7 million by 2050 to US$0.9–16.8 million by 2100 (Ng and Mendolsohn, 2005). It was concluded that it would be more costly to the country to allow the coast to become inundated than to defend it. Studies of this type could provide useful guidance to island governments in the future, as they are confronted with the difficult task of making adaptation choices.