By: Our Correspondent

Related story: Corporate Interests Push Nose into Climate Talks Tent

Five of the world’s top 15 countries vulnerable to climate change dot the vast Pacific Ocean, vulnerable to the storms that sweep across with nothing to hinder them, and must step up efforts to brace for future adverse impacts, according to a special breakout in the Asian Development Bank’s Pacific Economic Monitor.

All of the islands have experienced disasters of astonishing magnitude, with tropical cyclones in some cases wiping out as much as 90 percent of dwellings on some islands, and cutting steeply into gross domestic product.  Most of them are tiny, including Fiji, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Tonga, Kiribati, Palau, Samoa and the Solomon and Cook Islands, among others, and face problems of amassing the resources to deal with what is shaping up to be huge problems from rising seas, intensifying storms and other climate-related problems.

“Climate change is bringing additional risks from global sea rise – and potentially heightening vulnerability to more intense, frequent and prolonged extreme weather,” according to the report, prepared by Ananya Basu, Robert Boumphrey, Prince Cruz, Noel Del Castillo, David Freedman, Rommel Rabanal, Shiu Raj Singh, Cara Tinio, and Laisiasa Tora of the ADB’s Pacific Department

Its main conclusion is that globally, medium-term risk clouds better-than-expected short-term gains. Despite a strong global economy, the report says, recovery remains weak in many countries and medium-term risks to growth, such as tighter monetary policy, inward-looking policies, and persistently low inflation in advanced economies, among others, continue to cast a shadow over the global economy. The full report can be found here.

The vulnerable countries must climate-proof vital infrastructure assets, strengthen disaster risk management and expanding social safety nets to build resilience to disasters, according to the ADB report. A number of Pacific economies are doing so, promoting green urban development to move toward more sustainable green cities.

“Careful monitoring and planning will also be required to manage important income flows, including fishing license fees and tourism-related revenues, amid climate-related volatilities and to maintain adequate fiscal buffers for disaster response.”

Climate change is expected to bring about an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as flooding, droughts, and cyclones as well as pose threats to marine and terrestrial ecosystems.  Here are some examples.

Vulnerability to climate change

In February 2016, Cyclone Winston hit Fiji, the most intense such storm ever to make landfall in the Southern Hemisphere. It killed 44 people and damaged or destroyed more than 30,000 houses, 495 schools and 88 medical facilities. The government estimated the damage to be the equivalent of a third of Fiji’s gross domestic product. Post-Winston growth fell to 0.4 percent of GDP in 2016, compared with a pre-Winston forecast of 4.0 percent.

By 2050, according to a climate vulnerability assessment launched at COP23, Fiji’s annual losses due to extreme weather events could reach the equivalent of 6.5 percent of GDP. An estimated US$4.5 billion over 10 years—almost equivalent to the country’s GDP in 2017—is needed to ensure the resiliency and adaptability of the country to climate change.

The number of Fijians being pushed into poverty and hardship is estimated to rise from 25,700 per year in 2017 to an estimated 32,400 people per year by 2050. Losses from floods and cyclones are projected to cost up to 30 percent more in real terms by 2050 than currently. 

The report recommends building resilient towns and cities, improving infrastructure services, supporting climate-smart agriculture and fisheries, conserving ecosystems, and building socioeconomic resilience. The government has mandated raising minimum building requirements to Category 4 resilience Measures to climate-proof public infrastructure investments include intricate drainage systems to prevent flooding and surface-tear and traction loss of roads, and underground trenching of telecoms cables.

The ADB is working with the World Bank Group to assist Fiji to develop an income protection and disaster insurance scheme that can cover vulnerable households.

In addition to Fiji, many other Pacific economies are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change., with their populations particularly exposed to rising sea levels, with economic growth be seriously affected by damage and loss.  

These include the Cook Islands, which were hit by five cyclones hit over just two months in 2005. period of 2 months. In 1997, Cyclone Martin destroyed about 90 of the houses in Raratonga and killed 19 people on Manihiki atoll. Cyclone Pat in 2010 damaged 78 percent of the homes in Aitutaki, devastating crops, and disrupting tourism.

Kiribati, one of the smallest, remotest, and most geographically dispersed countries in the world, comprising 33 atolls and islands spread across 3.5 million sq. km of ocean—an area larger than India.  Kiribati’s low-lying atolls rise an average of only 1.8 meters above sea level, and as such, are exposed to the adverse impacts of climate change. If the sea level continues to rise at its current rate, Kiribati will disappear by 2100.  The Kiribati government famously has made plans to move to buy other islands and transport its entire population. Despite record fishing revenues which have boosted growth, unfavorable weather has cased a decline in revenues by more than 40 percent.

Samoa in 2009 was struck by a tsunami that killed 143 people and injured 310. More than 12,000 people were affected by waves that wiped out large stretches of the south and southeast coasts of the main island of Upolu. The country’s vulnerability to cyclones was demonstrated in 2012, when Cyclone Evan destroyed more than 600 homes, killed 14 people, and displaced more than 7,500 according to research by ADB. The IMF estimated the resulting economic damages and production losses at over $210 million, equivalent to about 30percent of the country’s GDP.  

Tonga is ranked by the 2016 World Risk Report as second-highest among countries most at risk of disasters. (Of these, Vanuatu ranks the highest, and three other ADB developing member countries are included in the top 15.) It is already experiencing the effects of climate change, as increasing variability in rainfall patterns is causing more severe flooding and droughts. Rising ocean temperatures have led to coral bleaching and destroyed natural coastal barriers, and sea level rise is contributing to coastal erosion.

These changes have increased the country’s exposure to disasters caused by climatic events, such as tropical cyclones and storm surges, which have inflicted significant economic losses. Tonga is also highly vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis because of its location and geology.

In 2015, Cyclone Pam affected around 40 percent of Tuvalu’s population and caused significant losses and damages estimated by the World Bank at US$10.3 million, equivalent to 26.9 of Tuvalu’s GDP. The costs of reconstruction and long-term resilience are likely to be five times that amount, according to the ADB. “Given the country’s vulnerability, mitigating the impact of and adapting to climate change has been identified as a key priority for successive governments.”

To help mitigate risks, the Government of Tuvalu adopted Te Kakeega III (National Strategy for Sustainable Development 2016–2020) in November 2015, which aligns with the UN Sustainable Development Agenda and focuses on 12 strategic areas including climate change. In June 2016, the Green Climate Fund approved a $38.8 million coastal protection project.  

Palau, a small island nation in the North Pacific with a population of about 20,000, is described in its tourist literature as a pristine paradise. Tourism is extremely important to the economy; between 2011 and 2016, the number of visitors to the islands averaged 130,000 annually—one of the highest ratios of tourists per capita in the world.

In preparation for the onset of El Niño in the summer of 2016, a state of emergency was declared in March. The intense heat and lack of rain led to a drop in the water level in the famed Jellyfi sh Lake, one of Palau’s major tourist attractions. The number of jellyfi sh dropped from millions to an estimated 300,000, leading to closure of the lake (Raines 2016). Drought conditions also led to water rationing as Palau’s main source of freshwater dried up.

Through the years, Palau has implemented revenue-enhancing reforms to finance environmental and other cause-oriented programs. In November 2009, the government introduced a “green fee” to be used for financing local community conservation efforts. In October 2012, the green fee was raised to provide funds for improvement of water and sewerage systems and coastal conservation efforts.