By Kalinga Seneviratne and Evelyn Agato
BEPPU, Japan, 4 Dec 2007 (IPS) – It could have been a Pacific Islands summit on climate change. Of the nine heads of state attending the first Asia Pacific Water Summit (APWS), underway in this Japanese town, seven are from the islands and more concerned with global warming than anything else.
Hideaki Ode, spokesman for the first APWS, explained that 49 countries were invited for the summit but top representation came only from Kiribati, Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau and Tuvalu. The others made do with lower-rung ministers or officials.
It was thus that the concerns of the small Pacific Island nations, particularly climate change issues, took centre stage during a session set aside for Asia Pacific leaders, on Monday, as the summit took off.
Coincidentally, the water summit is running parallel to a major 11-day, United Nations conference, convened to device fresh approaches to global warming and climate change, on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, that also began Monday.
“Past conferences on water-related disasters used to focus on water shortages, but the situation is changing in recent years because of global warming,” observed Japanese Prime Minister Yasuao Fukuda at Beppu, famed for its hot springs and health spas.
Small Pacific Islands are especially vulnerable to climate change, and President Emmanuel Mori of Micronesia said in his address to the APWS that “there is no longer doubt in anyone’s mind that the adverse impacts of climate change are real and already happening.”
Niue’s Prime Minister Young Vivian encouraged the countries that are still to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to do so now. He explained that it is the only means “to address the adverse impact of climate change on small island states and the low lying coastal areas of most developing countries.”
Kiribati President Anote Tong said that he was personally affected when rising sea water pushed in through a wall he had built around his compound. “Sea water was coming into one of our buildings so I had to move and live a little bit higher,” he explained. “Let’s discuss the long term issues but we have to get into action to address problems right now.’’
Water and sanitation issues were equally pressing for the small island states. A special session had a Pacific Island minister taking part in a TV show-style debate on water FINANCING, organised by the Asian Development Bank with Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands on the panel and the crown prince of Japan in the audience.
The Pacific Island leaders made the point that the issues were real and solutions were urgent with the deteriorating conditions of the region’s freshwater resources due to impacts of global warming on fragile island eco-systems.
President Tommy Esang Remengesau of Palau reiterated that no matter how large or small a country is its existence and livelihood depend on the availability of freshwater. “We simply cannot count on freshwater literally falling from the sky and solving our water management problems,’’ he said.
“Most of our water comes from groundwater because most of our people don’t have the roofing to catch rainwater. So they cannot store the rainwater,” Kiribati’s Tong told IPS in an interview.
“(Our groundwater supply) is impacted by coastal erosion because as the land mass becomes narrower (due to rising sea levels) the ability to retain groundwater will be substantially reduced,” he added, explaining how his country of low-lying islands, nine of them narrow atolls in the Pacific ocean, almost had to transport water from overseas recently. ‘’If there is no groundwater and rain does not fall, there is no water,” Tong said.
Nauru’s concerns were reported by its President Ludwig Scotty. His country is a frequent host to water shortages due to droughts. While initiatives and strategies to improve water resources management and protection of groundwater are going on, a lot more has to be done, particularly in the area of adaptation to climate change.
Latu Kupa, of the Pacific Water Association, addressing the small islands forum session complained that very often leaders in the region get together and say they cannot implement recommended policies because there is no political will.
Kupa said the Pacific Island leaders need to be applauded because it was for the first time that a majority of them has decided to attend an international meeting outside their own region to discuss environmental problems.
Kuniyoshi Takeuchi, director of the International Centre for Water Hazard and Risk Management, argued that Pacific Islands’ problem is also the problem of the international community, but warned against foreign remedies imposed on them.
He pointed out, for example, that the introduction of septic tanks has made groundwater unfit for drinking in the vulnerable island environment. Similarly, a Japanese company that planted pumpkins in a Pacific Island country, replacing traditional taro cultivation, ended up contaminating river water with fertilisers that killed coral reefs.
The leaders of Tuvalu and Palau used the opportunity to urge the international community to act with a sense of urgency to assist Pacific Island countries find solutions to their pressing environmental problems.
“We cannot stop natural phenomena but we can prepare to reduce its impact,’’ argued Salvano Briceno, director of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. His solutions were available within the regions, but international FINANCIAL assistance was needed to help implement them. “What is also important is people’s awareness and their education on ways to respond to climate change.”
Fiji’s finance minister Mahendra Chaudhry, speaking during a panel discussion on water financing issues, noted that in 2003 the South Pacific nations had adopted a water governance programme in response to rising sea levels, but implementing them has been a problem due to lack of financial resources. “We are starved of resources in terms of knowledge, governance and financing. I appeal to the FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS to consider soft loan options to the small island nations.”