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UN report: climate change to exacerbate freshwater problems of Pacific Islands

Photo: Millennium Promise Images
Millennium Promise Images
Photo: Millennium Promise Images

UN report: climate change to exacerbate freshwater problems of Pacific Islands

Climate change will exacerbate water stress in Pacific Islands, particularly small islands that rely on seasonal rain for their freshwater needs, according to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, issued in Bangkok, Thailand, today.

“The challenges facing the region in terms of freshwater resources are immense. Many of these islands have limited water resources, not to mention human, financial and management resources,” said the Regional Director of UNEP’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Dr. Park Young-Woo. “It is imperative that we improve water use efficiency to meet the basic human needs and to support sustainable development.”

The report, “Freshwater under Threat – Pacific Islands,” found that the almost total reliance on rain-fed agriculture across all islands puts economies and livelihoods at risk.

Nearly 10 per cent of deaths of children under five in the region is attributable to water related causes; and, 90 per cent of these deaths, according to the report, can be traced to poor sanitation treatment systems.

The delivery of water supplies and sanitation services in many Pacific countries currently falls well short of the targets outlined by the Millennium Development Goal (MDG), the globally agreed blueprint for halving extreme poverty, halting the spread of diseases, promoting access to education and improving health care by 2015.

According to the report, access to improved drinking water sources in Fiji and Papua New Guinea – at 40 per cent and 47 per cent, respectively – is about half the global average and it is anticipated that both countries will fall significantly short of the MDG for improved drinking water access.

Ecologically, smaller islands are under greatest stress, with 85 to 90 per cent of vegetation cleared on Majuro Atoll, Nauru, Fongafale and Upolu. These islands also have the smallest capacity to absorb wastewater generated from urban areas, polluting critical groundwater lenses.

The report cited water management as one of the greatest challenges to water resource vulnerability, particularly the limited technical and governance capacity partly due to the high emigration of the region’s skilled and educated workers. All Pacific Islands are struggling with Integrated Water Resources Management (IRWM) capacity, with only Samoa and Nauru having IWRM policies.

According to UNEP, these challenges will require innovative approaches and tailoring solutions that take into account the complex geographical and socioeconomic constraints of each island, as there is no one solution and would need a mix of policy intervention and preferred management measures.