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Disaster risks in small-island developing states

by Tadateru Konoe

Special To The Japan Times

As the Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) Conference was held in Samoa this week, it is important to reflect on the unique development challenges that some of these small island nations around the world contend with.

Many support small populations that face multiple threats; one of the foremost being climate change which has lead to changing weather patterns such as drought and heavier and more frequent rainfall. National Red Cross and Red Crescent societies from the Pacific to the Caribbean, to the Indian Ocean, are eyewitnesses to the humanitarian impacts of these changes.

Every day our volunteers are working in local communities where people are losing their livelihoods and food sources because of flooding, or shrinking water resources. Some are concerned that rising sea levels may render them homeless, others are feeling the impacts of too much rain coupled with soaring temperatures which are driving new threats — vector-borne communicable diseases, such as dengue and malaria.

Combined, these challenges are breaking down family networks and social safety nets with the result that the young are migrating in search of better prospects elsewhere.

The theme of SIDS this year is “The sustainable development of Small Island Developing States through genuine and durable partnerships.”

Partnership has always been the foundation of these nations. Unique cultural identities, strong family and community ties, and deep traditions of self-reliance have enabled island communities to adapt and thrive.

However, the current realities of adapting to our fast-changing world mean combining local and global expertise, resources and experience to meet emerging challenges.

Due to their size, location and often limited capacities, SIDS can be disproportionately affected by natural disasters. Disaster-risk reduction and climate change are indivisible and must be addressed through national, regional and international frameworks.

For its part, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is committed to working at the global and local level; this means forging wide-ranging partnerships, particularly with governments and local authorities to strengthen community resilience and preparedness, to help avert or reduce the worst humanitarian impacts of climate change on vulnerable people in many risk-prone countries.

Take the Finpac project, for example. Piloted by Red Cross National societies in Tuvalu and the Cook Islands and funded by the Finnish government, this project has enabled the IFRC to form a partnership in 10 countries with the Secretariat for the Pacific Regional Environment Program.

Red Cross societies are working with national meteorological services and local communities to develop early warning systems and improve dialogue among disaster managers, meteorological services and end users of weather and climate information such as fishers, farmers and villagers on main and outer islands, who depend on weather and climate for their livelihoods.

Communities will be able to make informed decisions about how to reduce risk through better access to and understanding of climate change and climate variability such as El Nino and La Nina events as well as tropical storms and periodic high tides.

It is essential that governments and other actors invest in building capacity for local institutions and involve citizens and civil society in actions and decisions that affect them. Local organizations including national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are part of the communities they work with and are uniquely placed to understand their vulnerabilities and needs.

Greater investment must also be made in young people so that they can contribute toward shaping a more sustainable future for the communities they reside in.

This means providing them with opportunities such as tailored education activities and skills training, especially those using peer education and youth-led opportunities for voluntary service and community-based activities.

At SIDS, the IFRC will be calling on Governments to do more to integrate disaster risk reduction into national development plans. We aim to build on the collaboration the IFRC has been having with the Association of Caribbean States and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and will be calling on states to strengthen their national policy, and legal frameworks for disaster response. Without adequate laws, disasters will continue to claim more lives.

In 2015, a new set of priorities will guide the future global development agenda. For the current and future generations of SIDS populations, it is vital that we see critical issues, such as efforts to reduce disaster risks, prominent in our common post-2015 agenda.

Tadateru Konoe is president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).