By Dr. Palanisamy Nagarajan (commentary)
The sustainable development challenges of small islands have been at the centre stage of global public policy dialogue since the ground-breaking UN Conference on Environment and Development, widely known as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992.
The outcome of this mega-summit, the Agenda 21, a non-binding comprehensive action programme for the 21st century for transition towards sustainable development trajectory of both the developed and developing countries, formally recognized the small islands as a special case for sustainable development in view of their uniquely inherent economic, social and environmental vulnerabilities facing them.
As a follow-up to the Rio Earth Summit, the first-ever UN Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) was held in Bridgetown, Barbados, in 1994. This conference resulted in a 14-point Barbados Programme of Action on sustainable development of SIDS (BPOA). It identified a wide-ranging critical issues (climate change and sea-level rise, coastal and marine resources, fresh water resources, biodiversity resources, and human resource development, among other things) for actions and the policy measures to be undertaken at the national, regional and international levels for tackling the sustainability challenges facing the small islands.
Ten years later, for the purpose of reviewing the implementation of the BPOA, the second UN International Conference on Sustainable Development of SIDS was held in Port Louis, Mauritius, in 2005. A 19-point Mauritius Strategy for the Further Implementation of the programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of SIDS, known as the MSI, emerged from this conference. In fact, the MSI is the current UN sustainable development strategy which focuses on the specific and exclusive needs of SIDS for the period 2005-2015.
The Mauritius Strategy noted: “The adverse effects of climate change and sea-level rise present significant risks to the sustainable development of small island developing states, and the long-term effects of climate change may threaten the very existence of some small island developing states […] Adaptation to adverse impacts of climate change and sea-level rise remains a major priority for small island developing states.”
As things stand now, despite the major focus of numerous United Nations mega-summits in addressing the sustainable development issues, the multidimensional sustainability threats of the small islands have intensified more than ever. The small islands are facing an uphill battle in getting out of their unsustainable development trajectory. The longer they move along the unsustainable development path, without a fundamental shift in the development direction, the greater the economic, social and environmental risks and deeper sustainability crisis they would face in the future.
In the present overall disquieting environment, it is worth pointing out that this year two major international events will bring the world’s attention to the sustainable development of small islands.
First, the UN General Assembly has designated 2014 as the International Year of Small Island Developing States. The resolution “encourages all Member States, the United Nations system and all other stakeholders to take advantage of the Year to promote actions at all levels, including through international, regional and sub-regional cooperation, as appropriate, aimed at the achievement of sustainable development of small island developing States.” The unique needs of small islands, their vulnerabilities and sustainable development challenges that they continue to face will be the focus of the International Year of SIDS.
Second, the Third UN Conference on Small Island Developing States will be held in Apia, Samoa, in 2014, during September 1-4. The important objectives the conference will seek to achieve are: 1) Assess the progress to date in achieving the sustainable development goals of the small islands and the remaining implementation gaps in the programme of action. 2) Seek a renewed political commitment and pragmatic implementation of further policy measures. 3) Identify new and emerging development challenges and means of addressing them.
Since the Third International Conference of SIDS coincides with the celebration of the International Year of SIDS, the fundamental sustainability issues of small islands will come to a greater limelight in the global public policy forum this year.
What can we expect from the forthcoming mega- conference? As in the past, we can expect nothing but rehashed ideas, high-sounding affirmations and non-binding agreements, among other things.
More than 40 years ago, the first UN Conference on the Human Environment, which was held in Stockholm in 1972, proclaimed: “A point has been reached in history when we must shape our actions throughout the world with a more prudent care for their environmental consequences. Through ignorance or indifference we can do massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and well-being depend. Conversely, through fuller knowledge and wiser action, we can achieve for ourselves and our posterity better life in an environment more in keeping with human needs and hopes.”
At this juncture, it is worth reflecting and pondering about the massive and irreversible damages we have done to our fragile ecosystems since the 1972 Stockholm Conference.
Dr. Palanisamy Nagarajan is Emeritus Professor of Economics and Research Associate of the Institute of Island Studies, University of Prince Edward Island