Global warming, natural disaster and Pacific Island communities

Global Warming, Natural Disaster and Pacific Island Communities

“Small island developing States are particularly vulnerable to natural as well as environmental disasters and have a limited capacity to respond to and recover from such disasters…[they] could in some cases become uninhabitable. Therefore, they are among those particularly vulnerable States that need assistance … including adaptation measures and mitigation efforts.”

Barbados Declaration, United Nations Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, 1994.


Global warming and rising sea levels could devastate Pacific Island communities forced to abandon their homes.

Research shows that international relocations of Pacific Island communities have not worked in the past, and Associate Professor John Campbell is urging governments to consider how to deal with the issue before it is forced upon them.

Dr Campbell, who specialises in natural disaster management, says natural disasters such as cyclones, and land rendered uninhabitable by mining, have already forced the relocation of many Pacific Island communities within their region – often with poor results.

Most Pacific Islanders have strong attachments to land, and the more distant the relocation, the higher the chance of failure. Relocation of whole villages within the Pacific - even just within an island - can cause cultural problems.

Dr Campbell’s research of colonial era relocations has identified tensions generations after communities or villages have been relocated away from their ancestral lands. An example of international relocation under the colonial era was that of Ocean Island inhabitants after phosphate mining had devastated their land. They went to Rabi Island in northern Fiji in 1945, but remain one of Fiji’s more politically marginalised and disadvantaged communities.

Climate change “adaptation” is likely to make international relocation more common, and the logistics and impacts need to be considered now, says Dr Campbell.

Those facing the greatest threat posed by global warming are the 160,000-strong combined populations of four Pacific Island nations that are made up entirely of atolls. Moving within the Pacific is likely to pose logistical and land problems, but moving to Australia or New Zealand would subject the displaced people to vastly different economic, legal, political and social systems. Their lives would forever be changed, and their new hosts would also face significant social disruption.

External funding gratefully acknowledged: The Asia Pacific Network for Global Change Research.


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