WORLD ENVIRONMENT DAY ON JUNE 5 2014 : We need to raise our voices at international forums

Photograph by Claire Martin for Bloomberg Businessweek

The World Environment Day is celebrated every year on June 5, since 1972.  It is the most important event organised by the United Nations to sensitize populations worldwide, about the necessity to protect the environment of our planet. The situation has been deteriorating, and is becoming dramatic for many regions, especially in the developing world – some countries will soon be wiped off the surface of the earth.
The theme chosen for this year is “Small Island Developing States (SIDS)” in the context of climate change - very relevant for us, as Mauritius belongs to this group.
The SIDS comprise some 52 countries / territories – mainly small islands and low lying coastal countries - with a population of about 50 million. The gross majority (43) are in the Caribbean & South West Pacific, while the others are located in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. They have fragile ecosystems, and are highly vulnerable, ecologically as well as economically. The SIDs are known for their diversities, in terms of population, culture, economy – 12 of them belong to the Least Developing Countries group (for example Comores, Haiti, Kiribati, Timor-Leste), while Singapore and the Bahamas have the highest GDPs.
Characteristics of SIDS
The SIDs face unique socio-economic development and environmental challenges. They have scarce land resources, face high transportation costs (especially for energy) as they are remotely located from large markets, and are unable to develop economies of scale due to their small markets. They have limited natural resources and are economically often dependent on agriculture, fishing, forestry and tourism, and their marine and coastal environment are under great pressure. They face serious threats from climatic extreme events, and their vulnerability is magnified by climate change. We can easily recognise ourselves in this group - Mauritius is a typical SIDS.
Sea level rise
Due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, global temperature has increased by about 10C since the 1850’s. The resulting expansion of the ocean (water expands when it is heated) and the melting of glaciers are contributing to a rise in the sea level, of the order of 2-3 mm per year. The rise is expected to reach 30 – 90 cms. by 2100, but could be much higher according to some sources. Already the current increase in sea level, and the wave surges that it helps to create, are causing severe coastal erosion, damages to coastal infrastructure and infiltration of saline water in coastal fresh water reserves.
We can witness such beach erosion at Choisy, Flic-en-Flac and Albion, and recall the damages at Riviere des Galets due to very high waves hitting the shore, a few years ago. But the situation is more catastrophic for some SIDS.
Example of Kiribati
Some 103,000 people live in Kiribati, a group of 33 small islands (mostly low-lying atolls) spread in the central Pacific Ocean. Half the population live in Tarana, an island close to the equator, where the population density is 5000 per sq km, and the highest point – nicknamed as Mount Kiribati - is only 3 metres above sea-level (the geographical profile of this island does resemble that of Agalega). Fish is abundant, but are over-exploited by industries of neighbouring countries. The people live in poor conditions, and are highly dependent on foreign aid.
They rely on rainwater for drinking purposes, as underground water is becoming salty. Life expectancy is about 65 years, due to poor public health – diabetes, diarrhoea and food poisoning are very common, and tuberculosis & leprosis affect many people. In less than 20 years, it will not be possible to live on this island. First, water availability will be the problem, before rising sea waves and stronger and more frequent hurricanes drive away what could still be remaining.
Ioane Teitotia, his wife and 3 children – a family from Kiribati - moved to New Zealand in 2007 to seek asylum. They have been denied the status of refugees by the New Zealand high court on the basis that they have not been directly persecuted. They will soon be deported back to Kiribati, if they cannot convince the appeal court that they deserve to be recognised as ‘climate refugees’. Some claim that New Zealand wants to avoid a rush of such people in the country, and that the ‘world’ should take this responsibility.
Who will take care of Ioane and his countrymen?
We recall how the Prime Minister of Maldives had organised a cabinet meeting under sea water, in the wake of the Copenhagen summit of 2009, to sensitise the world about the similar fate of his country. We also know the on-going pain and tragedy of our Chagos countrymen, uprooted from their native environment prior to independence.
Raise our voice, not sea level
SIDS, and Africa, will suffer the most from climate change impacts, although we contributed the least to the green-house gas emissions. So, we need to raise our voices to highlight such flagrant injustice. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has invited SIDS to make their voices be heard ‘loudly and clearly’ in view of the 3rd International conference on SIDS and the climate summit, scheduled in September 2014.
We need to raise our voices at international forums, and build momentum at regional levels. And we must also have these issues on the agenda of our national and local government, boardrooms, social-media, NGOs, exhibitions, schools, clubs and families. This will help to sensitise our own population and policy makers, to accelerate climate adaptation and mitigation measures.
Mauritius has always been at the forefront to support the cause of SIDS and highlight their difficulties. We had the opportunity to host an important international conference in January 2005 – the outcome is known as the Mauritius Strategy for Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of SIDS. We could seize the opportunity this time to reiterate our support to the SIDS and our commitment to contribute our share towards the global effort to combat climate change: ‘We will do what we can afford to do’. A modest but determined statement – highly symbolic, but unequivocal - that will inspire all of us. We owe it to the future generations.
It is imperative that countries of this planet reach a ‘global, ambitious and legal climate agreement’, when they will meet in Paris in December 2015, for urgent implementation of corrective measures to ensure that global temperature increase does not exceed the agreed limit of 2 0C. And the necessary funds and technological support are made available to the deserving communities for adaptation measures.