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Problems in the Small Islands Environment

The ocean covers more than two thirds of our planet, and small island developing States are generally somewhere in the middle of it. Their environmental priorities concern the islands themselves and their immediate coastal areas, where the balance of population and resources is critical for the future. From the perspective of the island countries, the ocean is still an unlimited resource relative to the present scale of their human impacts. The effects on the ocean of the great centres of population and industry in continental countries are much more significant.


The following are qualitative descriptions of the most pressing environmental concerns facing most small island countries.

Domestic Waste

The most widespread environmental problem, affecting almost all island countries, is the safe disposal of liquid domestic wastes, particularly human wastes and urban sewage. Few countries have adequate waste collection and treatment facilities even in the most developed urban areas, and those that exist are costly and seldom properly maintained. In spite of considerable efforts at rural sanitation, facilities in many rural areas are still rudimentary or entirely lacking. The result is serious water pollution both of fresh water supplies (rivers, groundwater and even rainwater catchments) and coastal waters around beaches, reefs and lagoons that are important for tourism, recreation and fishing. This pollution presents grave risks to human health.

It is only in the last two decades that countries have begun to pay serious attention to this problem, but the investments required to collect and treat domestic wastes are such that progress is very slow.


The damage or destruction of productive coastal resources and fisheries is a nearly universal problem. Coral reefs are destroyed by construction or dredging, pollution, siltation and dynamiting or poisoning for fish. Mangroves are killed off by dredging or filling, or by changing essential patterns of water circulation and salinity. Seagrass beds are dredged or silted over. Modern boats and fishing techniques combined with increased fishing pressure have driven some coastal fisheries resources (such as giant clams, dugongs or manatees, and sea turtles) to extinction in local areas, and left others seriously depleted. Ciguatera fish poisoning has increased with damaging activities in coral reef areas, further reducing useable fish resources. The result has been a steady reduction in the productive potential of coastal fisheries, one of the most important subsistence sources of protein, with a corresponding increase in imports of canned fish and other substitutes.

The establishment of 200 mile exclusive economic zones has brought most of the ocean area of small island developing States under national jurisdictions. The principal concern in these zones at present is the management of the fisheries for highly migratory species, principally tuna, which can only be done on a regional basis.

Forest cover

Another major environmental concern for the future of the islands is the steady reduction in forest cover in almost every country (except those that already have no forest left). Forests are logged for local use or export; shifting cultivation and clearing for agriculture are constant pressures on the forest resource; and frequent uncontrolled fires eat into the forest margins in some countries. This not only represents the loss of a significant productive resource, but contributes to many subsidiary problems such as water shortages, soil erosion, and loss of habitat for endangered species. While many countries have tree replanting programmes, these have rarely been more than marginally successful.

Land Use and Land Tenure

On small islands with limited resources, efficient use must be made of all available land to meet the needs of the people for water, food, building materials and reasonable quality of life, and to maintain the functioning of natural systems on which all these depend. This requires comprehensive planning and careful allocation of land to the most appropriate use or combination of uses. Traditional systems of land and resource tenure have prevented the application of western approaches to land management in many island countries. Land is a limited and precious commodity on an island. An islander's attachment to his or her land may go far beyond western concepts of ownership, and include mystical and spiritual dimensions rooted in island cultures. The systems of collective tenure were often effective before European contact in maintaining the fair allocation and wise management of scarce resources, but authority and control within traditional land tenure systems are rapidly breaking down. European systems of individual freehold ownership are no improvement in this respect. The resulting vacuum allows anarchic development, resource abuse and destruction without the possibility of imposing modern systems of zoning or control in the common interest. While some land is abused, other areas are neglected. However, tampering with land rights produces the same type of reaction as would interfering with religion. Restoring or building on customary systems of management may be the most acceptable and effective approach where it is still possible.


The above problems are the most widespread in their impacts within most island countries, and thus rank first in priority. Another group of concerns affect many island countries and territories. They are frequently given high priority at a national level.

Soil Loss

The soil resource, the basis for agriculture, is inevitably limited in the island situation. Island countries are subject to the same problems of soil erosion and loss of fertility as most other parts of the world, but the problem is more acute because the resource is often so limited. Many island soils were poor to begin with, and irregular island topography, geological instability, heavy rainfall and larger areas of cleared land increase the susceptibility to erosion. Traditional agriculture generally involved lengthy fallows or the addition of humus, but these techniques are being abandoned with modernization and increasing pressure on the land. On Niue, for example, where soil fertility is particularly sensitive to poor agricultural practices, a comparison of two land surveys suggested that degraded lands increased from about 20% to 45% of the total island surface in two decades.

Water Shortage

While heavy rains are characteristic of many tropical islands, they can be irregular from season to season and from year to year. Since most islands have little water storage capacity because of their porous rocks and many small watersheds, dry periods can result in serious water shortages which hamper development, and can create serious public health problems. Destruction of forest cover has caused many formerly perennial streams to stop flowing in the dry season. The shallow freshwater lens of atolls and coastal groundwater supplies of high islands can be irreversibly contaminated by saltwater if too much water is extracted from wells. Rainwater catchments are dependent on regular precipitation. On such islands, water is often the most limiting factor in development.

Solid Waste Disposal

The smaller the island, the more difficult are its problems with solid waste disposal. The steady increase in imports from overseas has brought with it an accumulation of old car bodies and broken down heavy equipment, appliances, bottles, cans and plastic. Disposal sites are often in coastal swamps, or take land from other important uses. Collection and disposal of wastes are expensive on a small scale, so that wastes are either not collected, or the disposal sites are improperly managed, with resulting health and pollution problems.

Toxic Chemicals

There is widespread concern about the potential dangers of the toxic chemicals being imported into islands in increasing amounts. Most governments lack adequate legislation controlling toxic chemicals. Pesticides or herbicides may be imported in bulk and then repackaged without adequate labelling, resulting in accidental poisonings. Chemicals brought in on a trial basis, or given on aid, may simply sit in a warehouse until the containers deteriorate and the contents spill out or seep down into the groundwater. Products considered too dangerous elsewhere are still in widespread use (and misuse) with no public awareness of the risks involved. Pesticides have been widely used in campaigns to control mosquitos and other insect pests with no monitoring of possible environmental effects. On one island, a warehouse containing barrels of Lindane was swept into the lagoon during a hurricane, killing a large area of reef; on others, drums of arsenic were spilled into the harbour, and toxic pesticides like Dieldrin have been used for fishing. Spraying equipment may simply be washed in the nearest stream, which may also serve as a village water supply. Accidents with toxic chemicals are that much more serious within the limited environment of small islands but few island doctors have experience in identifying poisoning by toxic chemicals, so most incidents probably go unreported. Monitoring for chemical residues in foods and the environment has hardly begun.

Oil pollution is only a minor problem in those small island countries that are not near major shipping routes, although the Caribbean has a problem with drifting tar balls. Oil spills have generally been restricted to small harbour accidents during fuelling or transshipment, and to spillage of fuel oil from wrecks. Even small accidents like these could be serious if they affect critical habitats such as mangroves or major fishing areas on a small island, but most spills to date have either been on remote reefs or in the already disturbed environment of harbours. There is always a slight chance of accidents involving tankers delivering petroleum products to island countries. If a major accident does occur, island countries are very poorly equipped to deal with it.

Endangered Species

The problem of the conservation of nature is particularly critical on islands where isolation has permitted the evolution of unique floras and faunas with large numbers of endemic species, while the small size of the populations increases their vulnerability. The demands of increasing human populations on limited land resources make it difficult protect natural areas even where the land tenure situation would allow such action. Steady habitat destruction, and competition and predation by introduced species further increase the pressure on native species. The situation on many islands is becoming critical as the area of undisturbed natural habitat diminishes. The result is a relatively large number of endangered (and extinct) species in countries where the scientific and financial resources available to deal with the problem are very limited. There are probably more endangered species per capita in small island developing States and territories than anywhere else in the world.

While a number of countries have made great efforts in setting aside protected areas, the needs far exceed the means. In addition, islands with limited land seldom can afford to create single purpose parks and reserves solely for nature conservation. Solutions need to be more flexible and adapted to island circumstances. Conservation areas which are created and managed by the traditional land owners represent the kind of creative approach to conservation needed in islands.

Sand and Gravel

One illustration of the limited nature of island resources is the difficulty on many islands in finding supplies of sand and gravel for construction purposes without creating serious environmental problems. Removal of sand from beaches leads to coastal erosion and the loss of beaches which are an important tourism and recreation resource. Dredging of coral and sand from coastal waters damages productive fisheries resources. Mining on land may affect the area available for agriculture, and leaves useless pits and quarries behind.

Human Habitat

There are also problems of the human habitat in most island countries, particularly involving housing and sanitation. In areas where cyclonic storms, hurricanes or typhoons are common, many houses are unable to resist hurricane force winds, or are in areas subject to flooding. The pressure of migration to urban areas has also resulted in overcrowding and makeshift construction with consequent health problems. Some cities now have at least partial sewage treatment, but the problems of urban pollution in general are far from solved.


A third group of environmental concerns are not as widespread as those above, affecting only a few island countries, but they are significant in the local areas affected.

Coastal Erosion

Islands are in a dynamic relationship with the sea, with material constantly being deposited on or carried away from shorelines. While the building of new land is usually considered desirable, coastal erosion is a serious local concern, particularly where it affects roads, buildings or scarce agricultural land. The expense of protective works to control erosion of shorelines is a continuing drain on those countries (particularly atolls) suffering from this problem. If the sea level rise predicted to accompany global warming does occur, this will become a widespread problem for all islands.


Mining is the most significant economic activity for a number of island countries, and it is inevitably accompanied by serious environmental problems. These include the disposal of mine wastes, tailings and processing wastes, erosion problems and the pollution of rivers in mined areas, loss of natural habitat or of land with agricultural potential, and the abandonment of unusable wastelands once the mining has ended. While new mines today are generally subject to strict environmental controls, older mines and areas abandoned after earlier mining continue to present serious environmental problems. Some phosphate islands were mined to the point that their inhabitants had to be evacuated as the island could no longer support a human population.

Industrial Pollution

Industry is not widespread in small island developing States, concentrating mostly on the processing of food or minerals for export. However, it frequently causes pollution and other problems in localities where it occurs. Wastes from fish and fruit processing plants, effluent from textile dyeing, and dangerous air pollution from smelting operations are some examples of localized industrial pollution problems in island countries. Fortunately the economic mainstay of some countries are non-polluting activities such as the sale of postage stamps. While some general air pollution (mostly from vehicles) is present in the larger urban areas, it is only of local significance and is usually dissipated in the great oceanic air masses.


The problem of radioactivity is a special case in the Pacific Islands, and is given a high priority by their governments at a political level. The region is perhaps the part of the world to have suffered the most from the nuclear activities of the great powers since the last war. The United States, the United Kingdom and France have all conducted many nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific Islands, and France has only recently stopped doing so. Some island people were contaminated in fallout accidents, and a few islands still have residual levels of radioactivity from local fallout from these tests. Recent reports of past dumping of nuclear wastes in the Pacific have fuelled further fears of regional contamination. These activities are seen by the Pacific Islanders as the wealthy countries doing in other peoples' back yards what they dare not do at home, and are resented accordingly. The immediate danger to the region from present nuclear activities is minimal, so this is more a moral and political issue than it is an environmental one.


The above problems all contribute in one way or another to the most critical environmental issue facing island countries: the sustainable use and management of limited island resources. Population growth per se is not always the most important factor; some islands have rapidly increasing population, while on others the population is actually declining through emigration. Nevertheless, human activities are leading everywhere to a gradual (or not so gradual) erosion in the resource base on which the islanders depend for survival. Since the limits to resources are much closer on islands, there is less room for error; an islander cannot just move on to somewhere else. Some small island countries are getting very close to their environmental limits. One island official confided that he expected his islands to reach the absolute limit of their agricultural resources within a decade. The soils were degrading rapidly, and it was culturally impossible to try to slow the increase in the population.

It is clear that the solution of these problems of the environment and of sustainable resource use will require management skills and a good scientific understanding of the island environment. Unfortunately, skilled people and scientific infrastructure are sorely lacking in island regions. The few scientific institutions are staffed largely by expatriates. In the past there were traditional experts on resource management at the local level, but more than a hundred years of missionary activity, colonization, European education and modernization have largely destroyed this knowledge and the traditional management systems through which it was applied.

If the peoples of small islands are to ensure for themselves a satisfactory environmental future, they must take measures to reverse the steady erosion in their resource base and to stabilize their populations within the carrying capacity of their islands, even if this means modifying what they see as deeply held cultural values. They must increase efforts to restore damaged resources, and to achieve comprehensive management of different resource uses and development activities, particularly in the critical coastal zone (which on islands may include most or all of their land area). This will be very difficult, as it requires questioning some of the development assumptions and goals inherited from former colonial masters or copied from elsewhere. It is clear from the above list of environmental concerns that islands require unique forms of development adapted to the limitations of the environment, and drawing as much from the traditional societies that successfully lived within those limits for generations as from the modern world.

A comparison of the environmental concerns of small island developing States with those of developed countries shows a profound difference of emphasis, at least in the short term. The pollution resulting from modern technological development is much less important than the need for sustainable management of the natural resource base. Islands are thus a potential model for the future, facing now what must become the long-term preoccupation of the whole world as resource degradation approaches the limits of the planet.

Source: UNEP Earthwatch - Small Islands Environmental Management
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