Ahead of small islands meeting in Mauritius, UN points to environmental risks

Ahead of small islands meeting in Mauritius, UN points to environmental risks

In reports written before the devastating tsunami raced through the Indian Ocean last month, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warns of the toll tidal waves, cyclones and other natural disasters take on the economies of small island nations, especially when accompanied by such man-made devastation as pollution, over-fishing and the discharge of waste into bodies of water.

UNEP produced the reports on the small island developing states (SIDS) of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, in the framework of the five-day UN meeting starting Monday in Port Louis, Mauritius.

The meeting will review the progress made since a similar conference in 1995 in Barbados lay down a programme of action to tackle the particular problems these countries face.

"Many of these islands are low-lying, making them vulnerable to rising sea levels, storm surges and dramatic weather events like the Indian Ocean tsunami. Climate change, with its anticipated increase in extreme weather events and rising sea levels, is set to aggravate the problem," UNEP says.

All too often the islands are remote from other countries and their small and fragile economies are based on tourism and a low number of exports, it says. On the other hand, they now depend heavily on imports, including buying fossil fuel, and have limited access to natural resources, including land and water.

Population growth "has exceeded the carrying capacity of some islands," while others, despite abundant rainfall, lack the means to store water and now face shortages, UNEP says.

After the needs of the tsunami sufferers have been met, UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer says, attention must turn to "precious and economically important habitats such as coral reefs and mangroves, as well as facilities such as chemical plants."

Healthy coral reefs and mangroves are said to help limit the coastal impact of some tsunamis.

The SIDS meeting comes at a time when Indian Ocean islands have suffered extraordinary damage from the 26 December tsunami. The Seychelles' coral reefs that were just recovering from dangerous bleaching in 1998 have suffered again, UNEP says.

"Juvenile fish death was high as these were thrown onto dry land by the tsunami. Some mangrove ecosystems were also affected," it says, quoting Seychelles government assessments.

In regional reports, UNEP noted that shipping in the Caribbean is causing major pollution, made worse by "the presence of major oil producing and exporting countries within the wider Caribbean, such as Colombia, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States and Venezuela" and the growing cruise ship industry.

"It is estimated that a typical cruise ship with 3,000 passengers generates each day between 400 and 1,200 cubic metres of watery waste, including drainage from dishwashers, laundry, showers and washbasins, along with grease, medical and dental waste," the report says.

In a significant natural disaster in the region, the damage Grenada suffered from Hurricane Ivan last September totalled $3 billion, a figure far exceeding its annual gross domestic product (GDP).

In the Pacific, "unsustainable exploitation of fish is universal throughout the region," UNEP says, citing such contributing factors as lack of regulation of subsistence fishing, which amounts to over 90 per cent of the catch in some countries, and Western-style fisheries management in others.

Because of over-fishing, the catch has declined sharply in some countries and has led to a deterioration in the health of island residents who have been eating less nutritious imported foods - mutton flaps, turkey tails, corned beef and canned fish.

In some islands, the discharge of sewage and agricultural waste into bodies of water has increased the growth of toxic algal blooms, which are being ingested by shellfish and fish and resulting in ciguatera poisoning, with its symptoms of diarrhoea, nausea and gastrointestinal pains.

In both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean regions, container waste has emerged as a "massive new threat," with carelessly discarded containers holding stagnant water, which is a breeding-ground for disease-carrying insects, UNEP says.