Big Challenges, Small States: Island Nations Come Together for Climate Action

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New community buildings in Samoa

On Sunday in Apia, the capital of Samoa, I saw the results of the World Bank Group’s work with coastal communities that were devastated by the 2009 tsunami and by Cyclone Evan in 2012.  Working with the Samoan government and partners, we built coastal roads and a new system of access roads that leads into the hills away from the seashore. Many families rebuilt their homes in the hills, and the new road system helps bind those new households together as well as providing safe escape routes should a tsunami or major storm hit the coast again.
The hard infrastructure construction is interesting; the community conversations about next steps for protecting the coastlines are even more so. The government is launching a series of community consultations that will bring together village mayors, women leaders, government agencies, and NGOs to decide how best to climate-proof their coastlines. The communities are set to decide if sea walls or mangrove plantations will best protect their land and livelihood.  

I’m in Apia with a team from across the IFC and the World Bank to represent the World Bank Group at the 3rd UN Conference for Small Island Developing States and took the opportunity to learn more about climate and disaster risk management at the community level.
For island nations, the small size of their land and their economies comes with a set of unique vulnerabilities that makes climate change a major determinant of their ability to thrive and in some cases even survive.

Two-thirds of the countries with the highest disaster losses relative to GDP are small island states – with average annual losses between 1 and 9 percent of GDP. These averages hide extremes, and sometimes a single disaster can overwhelm an island’s entire economy.
Take the example of Grenada, where in 2004 Hurricane Ivan devastated the country’s nutmeg crops with losses estimated at US$900 million, or about 200 percent of GDP. Or Cyclone Evan, which hit Samoa in 2012 causing damages equivalent to 30 percent of GDP. Just this year, a trough, technically not an extreme weather event, knocked 9 percent off the Solomon Islands GDP in 12 hours.  Losses of this magnitude are an enormous burden on a country’s budget and fiscal position, with serious consequences for growth and development prospects.
The economics are compelling. Clearly climate change and disaster risks have to be addressed as part of the macroeconomic framework of small island states.
So at the World Bank Group, we have put resilience to climate change and disasters at the heart of our support to island nations. Resilience is about promoting private sector investment in sustainable jobs. It is about seizing opportunities – from fisheries to tourism, from energy to telecommunications. It is about financial solutions to protect people and the government’s budget from the impacts of disasters and climate change.
In the Caribbean, for example, we have helped 16 countries join efforts through the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility, which pools hurricane and earthquake risk. This regional approach enables countries to quickly access funds after disasters strike.
The mechanism set up in the Caribbean was the first of its kind. Now, thanks to a similar solution, six Pacific island countries can also buy catastrophe insurance coverage as much as 50 percent cheaper than if they did so on their own because by joining efforts they are able to increase the market size and geographical diversification. Tonga was the first country to benefit from a payout when it received $1.27 million this year toward recovery after Cyclone Ian.
This is just one example of the technical advances, financial innovation, and political leadership of small island nations in the fight against climate change and disasters.
This is the year of climate action, and this Small Island Developing States Conference is an important milestone on the road to the Climate Summit that the UN secretary-general has convened for September 23 in New York.
Island nations cannot afford to wait for an international agreement, and they are being very clear about the support they need. We all have to deliver.

Rachel Kyte
World Bank Group Vice President & Special Envoy for Climate Change
Twitter: @rkyte365

Photo: A community center in Samoa. Juliana Knapp/World Bank


Rachel Kyte

Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change

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