Building the resilience of Small Island Developing States

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
Aerial View of Marovo Lagoon, Solomon Islands

Did you know that a one-meter rise in sea level would be enough to completely submerge the Maldives? Small Island Developing States (SIDS), which are especially vulnerable to natural disasters, including those induced by climate change, are a special focus of UNESCO’s work. To further address the unique challenges facing them, UNESCO will take part in the 3rd International Conference on Small Island Developing States, from 1 to 4 September in Apia (Samoa).

2014 is the International Year of SIDS. In Apia, representatives of governments, the United Nations, civil society, the private sector and academia will set out to define priorities for the decade ahead. Subjects to be addressed include SIDS’ resilience to climate change, safeguarding the ocean and developing renewable energies. UNESCO will organize or support a number of side and parallel events, dialogue sessions, exhibitions concerning educating for sustainable development, adapting to ocean threats, promoting careers in the sciences, protecting intangible cultural heritage, promoting culture and development, and preserving underwater cultural heritage. A Youth Forum is taking place ahead of the Conference to allow them to share their vision of a sustainable future and inform the plenary discussions. It builds on work done by UNESCO, UNICEF and other organizations in preparing youth to participate in the overall SIDS+20 process.

The event will help to shape a new global sustainable development agenda to follow 2015. “This agenda must recognize the importance of SIDS in providing early-warning to the planet as a whole – as custodians of vast ocean spaces that are essential for food security, for biodiversity, for carbon sequestration and for cultural diversity,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.

In contributing towards a new vision and commitment for small islands, UNESCO’s action is rooted in the fields of education, science, culture, social and human sciences, and communication. UNESCO’s leadership of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) has been guided by the goal to advance education as the best way to shape new ways of thinking and acting, and to build resilient societies. For example, Sandwatch, a UNESCO programme, aims to build the capacities of youth and adults to monitor and analyse changes in the coastal environment. It is active in more than 30 countries and initiated in more than 50 countries overall -- including 25 SIDS. Sustainable environmental action hinges on the education of all citizens, from the earliest age, in sustainable development.

Climate change is perhaps the most pressing challenge facing SIDS, threatening island livelihoods, resources, cultures and societies, and even the very existence of low-lying island countries. As a result of rising sea levels, the increasing intrusion of saltwater into freshwater aquifers pose significant risks for the food security of 2.6 billion people,  due to declines in productivity from the increased salinity of soils. In response to these challenges, UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme (IHP), which compiles information on the aquifers of SIDS, improves strategies for managing this fragile and vital resource in the islands and in the world. The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) strengthens capacities in the sustainable management of the ocean and coastal areas, coordinates global efforts to monitor and better understand our ocean, and helps SIDS confront the threats of natural disasters like tsunamis, rising sea levels and ocean acidification. In order to encourage the teaching of climate change, a Climate Change Starter’s Guidebook was jointly developed by UNESCO and UNEP.

Small island, indigenous and other vulnerable communities have been largely sidelined from global climate change debates. Climate Frontlines helps to strengthen their voices in global climate change debates. Through initiatives such as Climate Frontlines and Sandwatch, UNESCO builds the capacities of islanders to self-organize and create their own resources, in ways that are culturally sensitive and scientifically sound. These efforts reflect UNESCO’s emphasis on preventive measures and increased preparedness and education of potentially affected populations, rather than relief and emergency response. 

In recent years there has been a growing awareness that scientific knowledge alone is inadequate for solving the climate crisis. For UNESCO, traditional knowledge is a major resource for climate knowledge and adaptation strategies. To accelerate the global recognition of its immense potential, “we are working to promote the role of indigenous knowledge in major intergovernmental environmental processes,” said the Director-General. Moreover, “we are advocating for an ambitious and comprehensive education goal that provides due respect to local knowledge systems, including those of indigenous peoples.” Confronted with tropical storms, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, island communities in the Pacific, Caribbean and Indian Ocean have adapted to these hazards, drawing on locally specific knowledge and practices to minimize loss of life and livelihoods when disasters strike.

Culture is, indeed, an essential motor of sustainable development. “Sustainable development calls for ownership – it is about people. There is no one-size-fits-all development model. We need to adapt to each context. This is where culture can help, to foster participation, to craft a more balanced and meaningful development model for and by the people. We have seen too many well-intended development programmes fail because they do not take cultural contexts into account,” said the Director-General. To drive sustainable development through culture, UNESCO provides support for sustainable conservation and management practices in the 32 World Heritage Sites, located in SIDS.  Many of them attest to striking geological processes and a number bear the meaningful footprints of significant events such as colonization and sometimes of great crimes, slavery in particular. UNESCO also helps safeguard Intangible Cultural Heritage in SIDS, by creating synergies between community-based practices, customary laws and government-supported programmes. SIDS boost exceptionally rich underwater heritage, which holds enormous potential for sustainable tourism, economic growth and job creation.

Greater access to communication and information technologies (ICTs) and increased connectivity have been identified by SIDS as one of their priorities for future sustainability. For the Director- General, freedom of expression and media development, including ICTs, are powerful “forces for the rule of law and good governance, for greater social inclusion.” UNESCO supports SIDS in developing their media landscapes, particularly through the International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC). Projects such as “Media and Information Literacy Curriculum for Teachers” promote media pluralism, development of community media, and capacity building of media professionals. UNESCO’s Media and Information Literacy Program empowers citizens to understand the functions of media and other information providers, to critically evaluate their content, and to make informed decisions as users and producers of information and media.

In its deep engagement with SIDS, UNESCO works across a wide horizon, drawing on education, scientific cooperation, and the power of cultural diversity. The Organization promote a better understanding of social and global transformations, and also the creation and sharing of knowledge, thereby ensuring strong conditions for freedom of expression and media development. “These are the drivers of the creativity, the innovation every society needs today. These are the basis for greater equity and solidarity,” said the Director-General.

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