UN has a problem: members may soon start to disappear Nations that will disappear off the face of the Earth A problem for UN: some members will soon disappear

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TO THE unsuspecting onlooker the scene of coconut palms bending in the gentle warmth of the Pacific trade winds and turquoise surf breaking on distant coral reefs is an image of paradise.

But in fact the wind and surf of this tropical idyll are slowly attacking the ancient burial grounds of the Marshall Islands and everything around them. Storms, rogue waves and unusually high tides have destroyed sea defences, eroded the burial plots and carried flotsam from the ocean on to the white marble headstones.

The entire coastline of the Republic of the Marshalls, a group of 34 coral islands in the west central Pacific, is under attack from rising sea levels and storms of increasing ferocity as the phenomenon of global warming intensifies. It is a terrifying prospect not only for the 60,000 people of these reefs, but also for a constellation of low-lying island nations scattered throughout the tropics. Across the Caribbean and the southern and western Pacific, rising waters are already inundating the lowest-lying areas, bringing environmental and economic catastrophe.

The crisis facing these island communities will be centre-stage next week when a special session of the United Nations General Assembly addresses their plight. From the time of Defoe these island nations have been the repository of escapist fantasies. Now that they are experiencing first- hand the consequences of global warming and the melting of the polar ice- caps, they are literally drowning and waving furiously for international attention.

On present projections, sea levels around the world could rise by up to a foot over the next 100 years - not much it would seem, but enough to submerge 80 per cent of the 1,087 islands that make up the Maldives, not one of them more than five square miles in size. Enough, too, to wipe out 70 per cent of the Seychelles, and to lay waste the coastal areas where most of the population and agriculture is concentrated in a host of other island countries.

In the Pacific archipelago of Kiribati, straddling the Equator, two motu, or islets, have already disappeared from the face of the earth. In the aspiring UN entrant of Tuvalu, ground reserves of fresh water have been so badly spoilt by rising seawater levels that the island has to rely on rain for its drinking water. On several Pacific islands, staple food crops have to be grown in kerosene cans, so contaminated by salt is the local soil.

In global GNP indexes, they may not feature at the top. But then again, neither are they at the bottom, and is not a mite of material privation part of the package? Ask those who live in some of these places 365 days a year, however, and the perspective is a little different.

As measured by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), their self- appointed bloc within the United Nations, there are 43 such countries. Of them, 36 are full members of the UN, accounting for a fifth of the recognised sovereign nations on this planet, and for a quarter of all developing states which belong to the world body. In reality, of course, they are too weak, too scattered and simply too small to make much of a difference.

Next week, however, they will have their moment in the diplomatic sun when the General Assembly makes over two full days to a discussion of their situation. Officially, it is an occasion for stocktaking, to measure what has been achieved since a ground-breaking 1994 UN conference in Barbados, which first focused attention on the development problems of small island states. There will be some cause for self-congratulation, but rather more for apprehension.

The size, remoteness and exposure of many island states places them at the mercy of nature's mightiest forces.But nature's destructiveness, as usual, has its human accomplices. The paraphernalia of late 20th-century sybaritism - five-star hotels abutting on pink sands, the yacht marinas, the manicured golf courses alongside beaches where coconut palms shade their greens - are already leaving their own legacy of degraded fishing grounds, half-destroyed mangrove swamps and ruined coral reefs. In Nauru, like Kiribati admitted to the UN this year, phosphate mining has wrecked the interior of the island and destroyed entire ecosystems. In Micronesia, two-thirds of the surviving forests on the island of Pohnpei have been wiped out in barely 20 years.

And what is being done? Words, words and more words, the cynic will say, pointing to the tens of thousands more that will echo around the General Assembly next week. But practical steps are being taken. Sewage and recycling facilities are being improved in a score of AOSIS members; fisheries and land management programmes have been set up; money has been spent on improving communications and freshwater supplies. Tourism conventions have been signed. But in the end the fate of the island states is in the hands of others.

But ill the US and its colossal industries be moved to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases held responsible for global warming by the lobbying efforts of a clutch of mini-countries whose combined GNP is barely that of Birmingham. Even tourism, the mainstay of prosperity for so many, can be a fickle friend. A devastating hurricane, and the tour operators will quickly direct their discerning customers elsewhere.

Then there is the relative prosperity of the islands. It is hard to make a case for Trinidad and Tobago or the Maldives as a more urgent case for assistance than far poorer parts of sub-Saharan Africa, say.

"We need a vulnerability index," Leo Falcam, President of the Federated States of Micronesia, told the General Assembly last week - in other words, a system under which states qualify for assistance by the risks they face. It will cost Caribbean islands, for instance, more than $1bn a year for decades to protect themselves from rising sea levels. For even more threatened Indian and Pacific Ocean islands, the bill may be higher.

The problem may solve itself: a few decades of global warming, ever fiercer El Ninos, hurricanes and the rest, and some AOSIS members may settle gently beneath the warm tropical waters, never again to raise their voice in protest.