What Does the Future Hold for Pacific Island States?

The state of Tuvalu and Pacific Smaller Island States warned Australia about its actions for environmental protection on August 13th. This warning is very relevant in the context of sinking Pacific island states. Rising ocean levels threaten the security of these already geographically disadvantaged states. How will these island nations continue to cope with nature taking away land?

Apart from tourism, only a few miscellaneous industries (web domain selling, fishing permits) contribute to a notable share of GDP of the islands. Most island nations in the Pacific receive aid in some form. This shows that on their own, states like Nauru, unless they find natural resources to extract, won’t be able to cope with natural phenomena on their own.

Rising sea levels will first and foremost threaten the tourism industry in the islands. Taking away beaches and presenting a threat to tourism infrastructure (hotels, restaurants), the sea levels rising at around 12mm per year could cause a major blow to this important industry.

The income share from tourism makes up a significant share of GDP of these states: from 38.9% in Fiji to Vanuatu’s 18.3%. Even the lower income shares in the region are far higher compared to rest of the world.

Remittances are also a large part of income for Pacific states, such as Tonga, Kirabati and Samoa. The growing migration from islands to countries with more job opportunities (Australia and United States) presents an opportunity for easier survival of the nation states.

Since migration from Pacific islands is increasing, the welfare of family members receiving remittances should also increase. Moreover, a smaller amount of people living in the islands presents an opportunity for lower amounts spent on sea level rise preparedness.

If this will become a snowball effect, the problem of having to relocate citizens could fade away.

A Sealand-like solution could theoretically be used in the worst case scenario. Living on a platform would be an expensive solution, considering the population size of the Pacific nations. Moreover, few residents, except the most attached ones, are likely to want to live in a makeshift “island”.

Rising sea levels aren’t necessarily a death sentence for these islands. In nature, everything moves towards an equilibrium.

Many scientists propose a theory that rising sea levels will contribute to increase in ice sheets. Sounds impossible, until considering the evaporation of water from the rising seas and transfer of it into clouds, and, later, the transfer of that water as snow onto the poles. This theory has been confirmed by scientific research by NASA and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

If this theory will prove true, the problem of rising sea levels could diminish, and, with it, the uncertainty surrounding the future of Pacific island states.

Then, can alternatives to relocation of island citizens to larger neighbouring countries ever be viable?

The total GDP of all Pacific island small states is 10.3B US dollars. Even with international aid, non-relocation alternatives would be too costly for them. It is estimated that only the state of Florida could spend up to $74B on seawalls – a relatively simple measure. The Netherlands, through brilliant engineering initiatives, have successfully avoided the shrinking of land size. More so, the country bordering the North sea has increased its land size by taking away space where sea has been.

If strategies used by Netherlands to prevent the ocean taking the land can be used in the Pacific, it could be a viable alternative to relocation. However, some of the recent projects, like Deltaplan cost 5 billion euros. That’s almost half of the current GDP of Pacific island states. Nevertheless, the costs of these projects could be lowered through the cheaper workforce in the islands and nearby countries compared to the Netherlands.

Even better news for these states is that the islands have reached a consensus, and their representatives don’t lack the political will to take action. The Pacific island nations have released many joint statements throughout the years on the threat from sea levels. Pacific island nations are so cooperative that Fiji pledged to accept Tuvalan citizens in a worst case scenario.

There also have been intra-regional initiatives (e.g. by the Secretariat of the Pacific community) to avoid the consequences of this threat from nature. They have garnered positive results.

Total relocation (one of the possible outcomes) of the population of 2.3 million sounds almost impossible.

Getting this amount of residents to leave would not only be a political challenge, but also a financial one. Each family would require housing, income in the period before getting a job in their new location, and possibly education to be equipped with the skills needed in their new place of living.

Pacific island states, which are already coping with many challenges, wouldn’t be able to offer this scale of financial support. The burden then would fall on countries like Australia, which has promised to support these nations. There’s a problem with that.

These countries already have areas where financial support is necessary. Each individual citizen of these countries would be no more or less responsible, compared to other countries of the world, for the costs of relocating Pacific island state citizens. It would be unfair for them to solely carry this financial burden.

Yet, financial support from other states of the world is far smaller compared to the support offered by Australia and New Zealand.

Some of the world’s biggest polluters (China and India) have made great strides to lower emissions. This reduction in emissions should stall rising sea levels. However, offering more financial support to the states most hard-hit by the outcomes from emissions in the worst case scenario, would be a nice altruistic action.

Small island states have always been at a higher risk from the impact of natural phenomena. Warning larger states about their record on environmental protection brings attention to this problem. Without a doubt, exposure in media has the power to bring change. Yet, for the Pacific island nations, moving away from the status quo would bring only losses, in one form or another.