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Pacific islanders face major losses from climate change

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 30 Nov 2012 11:27 PM
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DOHA (AlertNet) - The livelihoods of some 10 million people in Pacific island communities are increasingly vulnerable to climate change, which poses "unprecedented challenges" to the region's economies and environment, a U.N.-backed report said on Friday.

Incomes - in many cases already low - are at risk from sea-level rise, tropical cyclones, floods and drought, as well as pressures linked to over-fishing and coastal development, said the report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Pacific Regional Environment Programme.

Low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean could face projected losses of up to 18 percent of gross domestic product due to climate change, UNEP added.

“This report presents concrete evidence that food, freshwater and the livelihoods of Pacific islanders are under threat," UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said in a statement.

Other challenges include population increases, a reliance on imported food and commodities, a growing waste problem and invasive species - pressures that are being exacerbated by climate change and more frequent extreme weather events, said the report.

The report, which covers 21 countries and territories, including Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga, recommends enforcing environmental legislation, making more environmental data available, and strengthening environmental institutions to help tackle the climate stresses facing the region.

“Enhancing local capacity to directly monitor and manage the impacts of the region’s changing environment is essential for reducing climate risks, but also for unlocking the potential economic benefits that a transition to an inclusive, low-carbon and resource-efficient green economy can bring,” Steiner added.

The study, which includes the experiences of over 500 communities, highlights successful efforts to create community-managed conservation areas, such as marine parks, that have used indigenous knowledge to improve recycling, energy efficiency and sustainable water use. These could be expanded and deployed in other regions, the report said.

Thanks to low greenhouse gas emissions and sustainable forest management by local communities, some Pacific islands could become net absorbers of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere in the future, the report said.

The region has experienced a severe loss of mangrove forests, but a net gain in forest cover between 2000 and 2009, it added.

SCARCE LAND UNDER PRESSURE

Housing, food and other needs of a growing population are putting intense pressure on limited land resources in a region where land mass accounts for only 2 percent.

Up to half of water supplies suffer leakage and water conservation practices such as rainwater collection have not been widely adopted. Demand for water is rising across the region, the study noted.

Coral reefs are being degraded due to climate change and ocean acidification, which has important economic impacts as reefs provide a major source of revenue from tourism and fisheries.

The large coastal areas of most islands where the population is concentrated, as well as their isolation and lower capacity for response and recovery leave communities highly exposed to extreme weather events.

And growing interest in mining activities could lead to more frequent disputes over land use, as could a shift from subsistence farming towards cash crops such as palm oil, it warned.

Although some steps are being taken in Pacific island communities to tackle environmental degradation, these will not be sufficient to meet the growing challenges posed by climate change, the report said.

"The findings... emphasise the need more than ever to 'raise the bar' through collective actions that address the region's environmental needs at all levels," David Sheppard, director general of the Pacific Regional Environment Program, wrote in a foreword. 

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