Small islands seek salvation in wake of Cyclone Heta

Posted: 27 January 2004

Earlier this month (January 2004) a cyclone devastated the tiny Pacific island of Niue, and its population of 1,700 souls. It lent fresh urgency to the meeting of small island states which has opened in Nassau, Bahamas, to discuss ways of combatting the effects on them of global warming, including storms, droughts and the submergence of their lands beneath rising seas.

Cyclone Heta was the worst storm anyone could remember, with winds of 184 miles per hour. It demolished the capital of the tiny island state, killing two (one of them a baby) and injuring several others. The following report on the background to meeting, which stems from discussions at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002, is by the Environmental News Service.

Cyclone Heta_Joint Typhoon Warning Center
Cyclone Heta_Joint Typhoon Warning Center
Cyclone Heta approaching Samoa at 1730z on 04 January 2004.Satellite image from The Joint Typhoon Warning Center

Is resettlement an answer?

To boost Niue's s tiny population of some 1,700 individuals, Niuean Premier Young Vivian said last week that he plans to "import" some of the 10,000 people who crowd the low-lying South Pacific atolls of Tuvalu. He said resettlement negotiations between the two small island states began last October.

Tuvalans may see cyclone-prone Niue as a good place to live. Global warming threatens to submerge Tuvalu, and current residents are facing threats to their fresh water sources and crops caused by rising sea levels.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has forecast a rise in sea level for Tuvalu of up to 88 centimeters in the next century. Still, in 2000 Australia rejected a request from Tuvalu to take part in a resettlement programme for its residents.

300 stakeholders

Cyclone Heta, Nuie. Photo Geoff Mackley
Cyclone Heta, Nuie. Photo Geoff Mackley
Locals caught up at Savai'i Island ferry terminal during the peak of Cyclone Heta, Nuie.© Geoff Mackley

Small island developing states are particularly vulnerable to natural hazards, as well as to the negative impacts of global change, whether these are environmental, cultural, social or economic, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is involved in the strategy sessions.

As part of the international strategy to address these issues, defined during the 2002 World Summit, a meeting of some 300 stakeholders from island states in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, South China Seas, and the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans is taking place this week at the Radisson Cable Beach and Golf Resort in Nassau.

This week's meeting will prepare the agenda for a major ministerial meeting on small islands in Mauritius later this year.

The strategizing is based on a Programme of Action agreed to 10 years ago in Barbados which centres around an internationally understood "special case" for sustainable development in island states.

This case puts forward the economic, social, and environmental vulnerabilities of island states and their reduced capacity to cope compared with other parts of the globe.

The South Pacific is not the only island group threatened by the negative impacts of climate change. Sea level rise as a result of global warming is predicted to cause problems for all coastal states, but in the Indian Ocean the Maldives islands are at risk of complete submergence.

And, UNESCO points out, as tourism becomes the economic mainstay of many small islands, unchecked development brings the risk of environmental degradation and the loss of biodiversity, indigenous knowledge, customs and languages.

Mauritius meeting

At the ministerial meeting in Mauritius, scheduled for August 30 to September 3, the focus will be on the these vulnerabilities of small island developing states.

Cyclone Heta approaches the island of Niue in this image taken by NASA's Aqua satellite on January 6, 2004. (Photo courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

Extreme storms stirred up by a warming climate place the small islands in their path at greater risk than ever before. Russell Howorth, acting director of the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission said on Thursday that not only is a category five cyclone like Heta not the norm for this region, but that the path that Heta took, as well as its impact were unusual. "More often, cyclones impact up to three or at the most, four countries, severely impacting not all," he said. "In the case of Heta, it has caused severe damage in five countries - American Samoa, Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa and Tonga."

The international review process taking place in Nassau this week and in Mauritius this August can help national island governments determine a way to establish comprehensive hazard assessment and risk management practices.

Drinking water

Together with other UN institutions, UNESCO is working with local stakeholders to address the challenges faced by small islands in all regions, such as a shortage of freshwater, coastal erosion, isolation, high communication and energy cost, as well as threats to their unique, but fragile biological diversity.

UNESCO says that other of the agency's activities focus on issues that are familiar to industrializing countries everywhere, yet are often amplified in small, remote islands, such as the empowerment of young people, school dropout, growing crime and violence, HIV/AIDS education, using new information and communication technologies, and promoting cultural diversity.

On Niue, the drinking water has been restored and the electricity is flowing once again, and a boatload of carpenters arrived last week from Tahiti to help rebuild the homes, offices, and the island's one hospital.

New Zealand will provide $5 million for reconstruction work on Niue. Other donors, including Australia and France, have also helped the island nation to recover. Premier Young told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Thursday, "This certainly demonstrates to us that people do care for the smallest nation in the world."

But in future years the planet's climate may be warmer if little is done to curb greenhouse gases, and future storms that roar across the Pacific may be even more devastating to Niue than Cyclone Heta. Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved.

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