Climate change is exacerbating many of the challenges facing people in Pacific Island countries, according to a report issued Thursday by the United Nations Development Programme.

“For the low-lying atolls, it’s a big challenge,” said Ambassador Odo Tevi, the Vanuatu Permanent Representative to the United Nations, about the changes caused by global warming. “It’s really an existential threat for them.”

For countries like Vanuatu, whose highest point is 1,877 meters, increasingly severe weather linked to climate change poses a major concern, he said. “It’s the intensity of the cyclones and hurricanes,” he said, noting that they threaten agriculture and infrastructure. “What it means for us is it could wipe out the whole economy.”

Such threats are occurring as Pacific island nations are undergoing massive and rapid change that has unearthed a host of other problems, said Nicholas Rosellini, Deputy Director for UNDP’s Bureau for Asia and the Pacific.

Economies are shifting from traditional systems built on the exchange of products to market-led, cash-based systems, he said.
Young men are migrating in large numbers to cities and abroad in search of jobs, often leaving women, children and the elderly behind.

And traditional family and social protection systems are in decline.

In all, one in four Pacific islanders lives in poverty, which is growing, as is inequality, Rosellini said.

The problem is not monolithic: 13 percent of people in Vanuatu live in poverty 35 percent in Fiji and 39 percent in Papua New Guinea, he said.

Those most vulnerable to poverty are women, children, youth, the elderly and the disabled, according to the report, “The State of Human Development in the South Pacific: A Report on Vulnerability and Exclusion in a Time of Rapid Change.”

“The picture of life expectancy is disturbing,” Rosellini said. “An average person in New Zealand or Australia can expect to live about 20 years longer than a person in Nauru or Kiribati.”

The report offers recommendations to improve islanders’ lives. For example, a cash grant to all children under five years of age would cost 1.7 percent of GDP in Kiribati, Samoa and the Solomon Islands and less than half that — 0.7 percent of GDP in Vanuatu.

“In turn, it would lead to a 10 percent reduction in the proportion of households living in poverty,” Rosellini said.
Making it easier to get an education – by making secondary school free or cheaper – would help low-income families move ahead, he said.

The release of the report comes days before the start of the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States in Apia, Samoa.

In terms of the Conference, there will be a lot of development challenges and issues,” said Tevi. “As long as we can narrow it down to a few priorities and ask the global community to support us in a few issues, like climate change, that need global attention, it will be very important,” he said.

It too is timely, given that it is to be followed on 23 September by the UN Climate Change Summit at UN Headquarters in New York, he said.