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How island nations are tackling climate change

Ineke Mules
November 5, 2017

The impacts of climate change are already being felt on a global scale, especially on small islands scattered around the oceans. These vulnerable island nations are planning to make their voices heard at COP23 in Bonn.

Salomonen Überflutung 4.4.2014
Flash floods in the Solomon Islands in 2014 killed 23 people and left thousands homelessImage: picture-alliance/AP

With Fiji set to chair this year's United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP23) in Bonn, Germany later this year, attention is turning to the plight of small island nations and the need to develop sustainable solutions to rising sea levels and extreme weather events.

Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI - formerly known as International Council for Local Environmental Issues) is an organization comprised of local governments who have made a commitment to sustainable development. It aims to share knowledge and provide training at a local level, particularly with towns and provinces in small island states. One of its current projects focuses on developing successful resilience practices on the Solomon Islands, which is already experiencing the effects of sea level rise. Over the last few decades, the country has already lost five small islands to rising waters.

DW spoke with Andrew Mua, mayor of the Honiara City Council in the Solomon Islands' capital city, and Steve Gawler, the regional director of ICLEI Oceania, at the 2017 Resilient Cities Conference in Bonn about some of the challenges facing the Solomon Islands and how it plans to tackle the issue.

DW: What are some of the biggest climate change related challenges you are facing in Honiara?

Andrew Mua: Sea level rise is a very big concern for island nations — including the Solomon Islands. We are slowly losing our beaches and small islands are already sinking underwater.

We are very thankful to ICLEI and other organizations who are helping us to address this issue and prepare our people for the worst to come.

How does ICLEI cooperate with the Solomon Islands in order to implement climate change adaptation strategies?

Steve Gawler: We came in last year with funding from the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction to conduct a disaster risk self-assessment with Andrew's council. So we have helped them work out how they can deal with disaster, like the flash floods in 2014 — what lessons were learned and what needs to be put in place so that the city can respond more effectively to another disaster with less loss of life and less damage.

Interestingly, one of the local partners working with the UN Habitat Cities and Climate Change Initiative (CCCI) was a university based in Melbourne. So the funding came from the UN to local partners for the benefit of Honiara, and we're still working together on various projects. It's an example of good international coordination, which doesn't always happen.

A lot of international cooperation on issues like climate change adaptation tends to work from the top down. Have you taken a different approach?

Gawler: ICLEI is different from other agencies in the sense that we talk with the local authorities about the issue first and then we help bring in those external agencies to start implementing solutions.

Mua: We work in partnership with them. The preferred approach that we have at the moment is bottom-up.

Vanishing islands

Of course, we still need the top-up approach as we need the government to help us in certain ways. But the strategies we have in place at the moment are because of the work of ICLEI and the CCCI.

Gawler: We are continuously working with local wardens, committees, women's groups and members of the central market to figure out which solutions will work best in their context.

What have you achieved so far?

Mua: Since the project began, we are now starting to realize the importance of the information we are given. It is helping us build better, more resilient homes which can cope with future disasters, which will reduce expenses and the impact on our citizens. Ever since the floods of 2014, the people of the Solomon Islands are aware that we need to start somewhere and be prepared.

Gawler: It's still the early days. We have only now reached the stage of actual implementation on the ground. We have a lot of plans in the works — I know the central hospital is going to be relocated to a safer location, as well as the oil depot. There are plans to duplicate the bridges across the river to create more alternative escape routes. A lot of these things will be completed in five years' time. This is real climate change adaptation.

When the 2015 Paris agreement was being put together, there was a big push from the Alliance of Small Island States to have their voices heard because they are generally the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Do you expect to see a similar approach at COP 23?

Mua: I have a lot of respect for organizations like ICLEI — to me they are at the forefront in this field more so than the countries at these talks. I have decided that in my city we are no longer going to be forceful in asking for funding. Instead, we want developed countries to help us implement professional, sustainable solutions for the future. We want them to give us the technical expertise they already have so that we can work within our means and prepare for the future.

Gawler: Small islands need to be treated with great respect because they have incredible strengths, such as connected communities, which are the envy of Western developed countries. We have identified that one of the main strengths of Honiara is their community structure. It's so strong that ICLEI was actually approached around three years ago by the Alliance of Small Island States because you're right — they represent one party in the climate talks, but their voices are small.

Part of the reason we are working there now is to see how we can use our global networks to help raise their voices more effectively. So we are developing a strategy to go to COP 23 specifically to draw attention to towns and cities on small islands and say to the international community: "You're forgetting about them. All of the new climate change adaptation frameworks you have developed are not tackling the problems in Honiara, in Suva, in Port of Spain, and many others."

Andrew Mua is mayor of Honiara, the capital city of the Solomon Islands. Steve Gawler is regional director of The International Council for Local Environmental Issues (ICLEI) Oceania.