1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Islands in a bind

March 30, 2010

Climate change has hit islands hard with some in danger of completely disappearing. Many residents have come up with unusual ideas to highlight the dire threat they face, raising the stakes in the climate debate.

An aerial image of Male, the capital of the Maldives
At grave risk - Male, the capital of the MaldivesImage: RICO - Fotolia.com

Time is running out for the residents of the Carteret Islands in the South Pacific. Their islands, part of Papua New Guinea, could become uninhabitable by 2015, due to the rising seas caused by global warming.

Since 1993, water levels have jumped by 40 centimeters (15.75 inches) around the Carteret Islands which are barely a meter above the sea. A study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says that worldwide sea levels could rise by one to two meters by the end of the 21st century.

A NASA image of the Cataret Islands in the South Pacific
The Cartaret Islands could disappear by 2015Image: Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center.

People living along coasts the world over are threatened by global warming. Whether it's in New Orleans in the United States, Rotterdam in the Netherlands or in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, where some 100,000 people lose their homes each year to floods.

Islands are particularly vulnerable because their very existence is at risk. Studies show that islands in two oceans are especially endangered – in the Indian Ocean, where the Maldives and East Timor are at risk, and in the South Pacific, where the sea could swallow around a dozen small countries by the end of the century.

The Society for Threatened Peoples (GfbV) in Goettingen estimates that eight million people in the region might be displaced due to climate change. That's despite the fact that the 22 Pacific island states together account for just 0.006 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Emigrating to safer shores

“The indigenous people in the Pacific experience climate change as a part of their daily lives,” Ulrich Delius, Asia expert at the GfbV said. “There's real fear particularly on the island of Atoll which isn't higher than three meters above sea level.”

The government of Papua New Guinea is trying to relocate the 3,200 residents of the Cartaret Island. Some have already moved to higher-lying areas such as Vanuatu, Tuvalu and Kiribati.

An increasing number of island residents are also trying to immigrate to Australia and New Zealand. But experts say they aren't just prompted by fears that their home could be submerged soon.

“Life has become difficult there (on islands) because rising sea levels are destroying fresh water reserves,” Delius said.

Salt water from the sea has entered public water pipes and contaminated drinking water in some places. It's also made the ground infertile. In some areas vegetables have ceased to grow and in others, palm trees are dying. Climate change has also led to frequent storms which have already devastated a few islands.

Fishing has also been affected. Some fish species have migrated to areas with higher water temperatures and thus away from islands, dealing a blow to the fishing industry which is the main source of income for island-dwellers. As a result fishermen are increasingly turning to coral reefs where overfishing has led to the disappearance of some fish species.

An underwater cabinet meeting

The president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, told Deutsche Welle in an interview that his country is affected by similar problems.

Maldives President Mohammed Nasheed at an underwater cabinet meeting
Nasheed, left, with ministers at an unusual cabinet meetingImage: AP

“We can't engage in horse-trading with nature,” he said. Nasheed has become a prominent spokesman for threatened islands. That's partly due to his spectacular campaigns. He plans to use the revenue generated by tourism to buy land for Maldivians either in India, Sri Lanka or Australia. In October last year, Nasheed held a highly-publicized underwater cabinet meeting to draw attention to the plight of island states ahead of a major climate summit in Copenhagen.

Vulnerable island states in particular pressed for stringent climate goals at the Copenhagen meeting – a maximum temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050 compared to levels in 1850. They have rebuffed the two-degree target favored by many governments, saying it's too little.

“Island states are under pressure to act. That's why they're taking the lead,” Jakob Graichen of the Freiburg Institute of Applied Ecology who was at the Copenhagen summit said.

He said the 42-member Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis) were a force to reckon with at the Copenhagen summit. Tuvalu was the first to criticize the weak declaration agreed by the heads of government.

But Aosis doesn't agree on everything – countries with larger shipping fleets and strong tourism sectors are reluctant to impose binding emissions caps on aviation and shipping industries. Despite the divisions, Graichen said an agreement among island states is still possible. “There are several different proposals on the table.”

At the forefront of fighting climate change

Islands also play a major role in the climate debate because they are spearheading efforts to promote carbon-friendly energy sources.

El Hierro, the smallest of the Canary Islands in Spain has said it plans to completely move away from fossil-based energy sources. The islands of Pellworm in Germany, Utsira in Norway or Samsoe in Denmark are also trying to do the same.

Maldivian President Nasheed too is plumping for renewable energy in a big way. He's said that three wind power projects and one solar project to generate electricity are already in the pipeline. The Maldives is also pushing the UN high commissioner for human rights to clarify the connection between climate change and international human rights treaties.

Children playing in the water on the island of Tuvalu
Islands like Tuvalu are pushing for strong climate agreementsImage: Greenpeace/Gary Braasch

That's prompted by the rising number of climate refugees around the world – an estimated 25 million of them. Until now, the UN refugee commission has not included them in the Geneva Convention, partly because the UN's finances are strained and can't cope with providing for more refugees.

Climate change has thrown up a host of legal questions which have no immediate answers. But the fate of Pacific Islanders underlines the urgency of finding solutions.

President Mohammed Nasheed says all countries need to finally realize the consequences of climate change. “It's the question of the century. Our survival depends on it.”

Author: Torsten Schaefer (sp)
Editor: Mark Mattox

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

A missile explodes over Kyiv, May 16, 2023
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage