Paradise islands: will the world act to save them?

The most important environmental talks ever held begin in Japan next week. Nicholas Schoon, Environment Correspondent, explains that the very existence of some of the world's smallest nations is at stake.
Click to follow
A rise of half a metre in sea levels over the next 100 years may not sound very much. But, when your country's land is less than two metres above sea level, it matters a great deal.

That is why the tiny, scattered, coral atoll nations of the globe will be watching next week's United Nations climate treaty talks in Kyoto with particular anxiety. If leaders of the developed nations do not agree to begin curbing their rising emissions of greenhouse gases, the islands are likely to become uninhabitable within a couple of generations.

When Australia last week finally declared its negotiating position, that its emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases must be allowed to rise by 18 per cent between 1990 and 2010, the atolls' diplomats and leaders felt particular gloom. ``Thank you, Australia, for destroying our future,'' Espen Ronnberg, the Marshall Islands ambassador to the UN, told The Independent this weekend. ``This outrageous position is completely contrary to what nations are committed to under the UN climate convention they have signed.''

The atolls are the coral-reef encrusted remains of sinking, mid-ocean volcanoes. They are specks on the map which, with larger scale charts, appear as tiny islets forming a circle round a shallow lagoon, like a necklace.

The islands may be as long as several kilometres, but they are, at most, a few hundred metres wide. They consist of coral rubble and sand, eroded from the surrounding reefs and piled up a couple of metres above sea level by storms and waves. Collections of the atolls are bunched together into tiny nation states, such as the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu in the Pacific, and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

Being flat, sandy and covered in coconut palms, they may look a little like cartoon desert islands, but they certainly are not deserted. More than a quarter of a million people live on the Maldives, with the number boosted by a growing tourist trade. The Marshall Islands have a population of 54,000, growing by more than 3 per cent each year.

The scientific consensus is that, if we continue with "business as usual", burning more and more gas, oil and coal, sea levels will rise by half a metre in the next century. The maximum likely increase is one metre by 2100.

While none of the atolls' larger, inhabited islands may disappear entirely beneath the waves, they are expected to lose much of their land. It has been estimated that a metre rise in sea level would drown 80 per cent of Majuro, the main, capital island of the Marshall Islands. But, before that happens, such islands may run out of something just as crucial as dry land - drinking water.

Neroni Slade, chairman of the Association of Small Island States, and Samoa's ambassador to the UN, said: ``We may be dealing with small numbers of people compared to other nations' populations, but we're talking about something larger.

``We're talking about whole cultures and languages disappearing. These are sovereign states, as unique as any other collection of human beings.''

Kyoto summit, page 7

Leading article, page 14