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Why Climate Change matters: A small island state perspective

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What effects will the climate change have on the small “paradise islands”?  The island people are losing not only their beaches, but their livelihoods and homelands.

Mauritius is a small island state in Indian Ocean near Madagascar.

In the UN climate negotiations there is a group of countries called AOSIS, short for Alliance of Small Island Developing States, which is one of the most vocal on how global ambition levels for climate change mitigation must be strengthened dramatically. I know how they feel.  The IPCC has predicted that global sea level will rise by 18-59 cm over the next century. This will directly affect the coasts through higher storm-surge flooding risk, increased coastal erosion and extensive coastal inundation.

Before coming to Norway in 2010, I lived in Mauritius, a small island state in Indian Ocean near Madagascar. Mauritius is very small, and is known as a little corner of paradise with sandy shores, palm trees and coral reef. These features attract tourists from all over the world who want to enjoy warm weather and clear sea waters. With 14 percent contribution to its GDP and 40 000 full time employments, tourism is the third main economic pillar of this island.  The key feature of the Mauritian tourism is its seaside and most of its hotels are built within a thin margin along the coastline, at sea level height. In other words, Mauritian tourism industry depends on its coastline.

The importance of coral reefs
The valuable coastline exists thanks to a coral reef which circles the entire island. The reef creates habitats for fish and other marine species which form the livelihood for many local fishing communities. It also decreases wave energy, preventing erosion and providing the island with shallow lagoons and sandy beaches which attract divers and sun seekers from all over the world. The UN has estimated that the goods and services provided by a kilometer square of coral reef is roughly equivalent to a million US dollars, and that having to compensate for the its loss will be equally, or if not more expensive. However, developers and government often fail to see the ecological and economic value of this fragile, yet important, ecosystem.

Climate change and Mauritius
Coral reefs are already being degraded by land based pollutants, sediments, destructive fishing and mining. However, the threat which looms over reefs locally and globally is higher sea temperatures due to climate change. The massive 1998 coral bleaching event in the Western Indian Ocean which affected 98 % of the reefs was only one of recent hints of what may happen in the future. The loss of these reefs will lead to reduced coastal protection and exposing its coast to the elements.

Mauritius coastline is directly threatened by another climate change threat: sea level rise. Impacts of sea level rise could potentially be minimised if coral reef is left to grow and play its coastal protection role. In the contrary, sea level rise alone or coupled with additional climate change effects such as changes in cyclone intensities and frequencies can increase the risk of storm surge, causing irreversible changes to its morphology and impacting on coastal infrastructure. A worst case scenario predicted that a 1 m sea-level rise in the western coast of Mauritius could sweep away about 26 km of beaches damaging more than 30 km of coastal road.

The solutions
It is first necessary to acknowledge the ecological and economic value of coral reefs. If these are lost, we will not only have to pay high financial costs to compensate for these goods and services, but also we will lose valuable natural habitats.

The second step is to acknowledge that higher sea temperatures and sea level rise driven will be the most important threat to coral reefs, worldwide.

Next, adaptation measures including prevention, structural and non-structural measures will have to be taken into consideration. However we must have an ecosystem based management approach to ensure that reefs are both resistant and resilient to overcome climate change impacts and continue to serve has habitats and natural barriers against sea level rise.

Finally governments of the world need to take decisive actions to stop GHGs emission and reduce climate change.

In the UN climate negotiations, the AOSIS countries tell clear stories of how they’re are losing not just their beaches, but their livelihoods and homelands. They insist on global emissions being limited to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, while we’re heading for 4. They live with climate change every day are afraid that entire populations will have to find new places to live. What will fishing communities from Mauritius do for a living? How will the government compensate loss of tourism incomes? Mauritius is still considered lucky, having high plateau it will not be wiped out by sea level rise. But what Kiribati, the Maldives, Tuvalu, Samoa and other AOSIS countries? Where will their people go?

Mauritius is lucky to have a high plateau, so it will not be totally wiped out by sea level rise.

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