Small island nations caught between rising debts, rising seas

These nations, scattered across the Caribbean, Africa, and the Pacific, share characteristics that make them particularly vulnerable to external shocks: small landmasses, isolated populations, import-dependent economies, and a lack of economic diversification.

| Updated: 27 May, 2024 3:43 pm IST

NEW DELHI: Facing the twin threats of mounting debt burdens and the devastating impacts of climate change, the world’s small island developing states (SIDS) are grappling with a unique set of challenges as they gather for the fourth UN Conference in Antigua and Barbuda this week.

These nations, scattered across the Caribbean, Africa, and the Pacific, share characteristics that make them particularly vulnerable to external shocks: small landmasses, isolated populations, import-dependent economies, and a lack of economic diversification.

Climate change, with its brutal droughts, powerful hurricanes, and rising sea levels, poses an existential threat to some of these island nations, prompting the draft document set to be adopted at the conference to declare, “The next ten years are critical for SIDS.”

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High on the agenda for the 39 SIDS countries, representing a population of roughly 65 million, is increasing climate financing, even as many criticize the slow pace of fulfilling previous UN aid pledges.

“The harsh truth is, for these countries, climate change is already a reality,” said Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in an interview with a media organisation. “Because of their smallness as economies, one extreme weather event can literally throw a country back 5-10 years in its development.”

However, most SIDS are classified as middle-income countries or higher, making them ineligible for international aid and preferential financing available to the world’s poorest nations. Additionally, many already face strained debt loads, with the UN estimating that SIDS will spend 15.9 percent of government revenues in 2024 on interest payments alone.

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“They are being trapped in a no man’s land where financing from the international community that is often a kind of safety net is simply not available to them,” Steiner said, adding that some $4.7-7.3 billion in financing is needed annually for climate adaptation measures in SIDS countries.

“SIDS cannot be left to drown in crises not of their own making. This would have catastrophic consequences for the entire world,” warned Fatumanava-o-Upolu III Dr Pa’olelei Luteru, Samoa’s ambassador to the UN.

Beyond seeking external aid, many SIDS are also turning toward reforming their own economies, prioritizing the development of renewable energy sectors and engaging in the “blue economy” of sustainable fishing and ocean conservation – a significant opportunity for these nations, which account for 19 percent of the world’s Exclusive Economic Zones.

Tourism, a crucial industry for many SIDS, is also being scrutinized for its environmental impact, as the spectre of climate change looms over these countries’ marine biodiversity and coral reefs, which draw scuba divers from across the globe.

Nicole Leotaud, executive director of the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute, highlighted the intersectionality of climate change with other issues faced by marginalized communities in SIDS, stating, “They are already marginalized because they are poor, they are already marginalized because of their gender or their race. And these climate impacts are another layer of injustice to these people.”

As the conference in Antigua and Barbuda unfolds, the world’s attention will be focused on the plight of these small island nations, caught between rising debts and rising seas, seeking solutions to challenges not of their own making.

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