Inundation: How Real A Threat For Small Island Nations?


Global warming, long in the media forefront, has recently become a speculation-fueled debate. Recent efforts by such international, and interrelated, organizations as the United Nations Environmental Program, the World Meteorological Organization, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have helped create essential standards for discussion, unequivocally establishing the present and anticipated effects of global warming. Although the proliferation of tropical storms due to higher temperatures may be more newsworthy for Pacific Islands, a greater threat is the long-predicted rise in sea levels.

According to the IPCC, sea levels will rise between 0.3 and 1.0 meters by 2100, with a best-guess estimate of 0.5 meters. This would double the number of world populations at risk from flooding; with a 1.0-meter rise, the number triples. For the smaller island nations of the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and Tonga, where nearly all terrain is within a few meters of sea level, rising seas cause storm damage, freshwater contamination, and flooding, if not total inundation. Increased coastal erosion exacerbates flood risk by endangering natural protective features such as sand dunes, mangroves, and barrier islands (World Resource Institute). Others claim that the Pacific rises less then two millimeters a year. Wolfgang Sherer, director of Australia's National Tidal Facility of Flinders University and part of a Pacific-wide sea level monitoring program, blames the 1999 submersion of two uninhabited islets in Tarawa, Kiribati on localized overuse of freshwater aquifers under each atoll, not on global warming caused by industrial nations. ("Little Evidence to Show Pacific Ocean Rising due to Global Warming," Pacific Island Report, 10/4/99.)

While the Pacific Islands are united in their desire for further anti-emission measures and protective aid, larger industrial nations, including Australia, have yet to implement already-agreed upon reforms. Researchers frequently cite insecure data in order to de-link sea levels and flood damage from global warming. One important limitation on the South Pacific Forum's voice is its exclusion from the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). Signed before many of these states had achieved independence, ATS gave control of the Antarctic to 43 nations and limited its development to scientific research. Scientists have recently informed foreign ministers from the ATS countries that the West Antarctica Ice Shelf is poised to slip into the ocean, causing a rise of six meters -- in their lifetimes. ("Antarctic Meltdown has Pacific Implications," Pacific Island Report.) This would mean the total loss of the Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and Tonga, as well as large swaths of the Cook Islands, Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, and the Solomon Islands.

Countermeasures for flood protection include population and crop relocation to higher ground uncontaminated by salt water. Mitigation, creation of flood ways for drainage, and development of more stable rice crops are all projects currently underway in endangered areas. While many believe that reducing the adverse affects of natural disasters should be addressed as part of sustainable development programs, the fate of many Pacific nations is uncertain enough to discourage the same foreign investments that would be needed to prevent damage.

The Pacific Islands are not the only areas threatened by floods. Sixteen of the world's largest cities with populations of more than 10 million are located in coastal zones, and coastal populations are increasing rapidly worldwide.

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