06.06.2012 - Rio+20

Sandwatch: on the frontlines of climate change

Coastal communities everywhere, but especially in small island nations, are extremely vulnerable to climate change. Rising sea-levels, warmer sea temperatures and natural disasters such as cyclones or tropical storms, pose a risk to the environment as well as people's homes and livelihoods. This is the case for example in the Cook Islands.

Located in the South Pacific, the archipelago comprises some 15 islands spread out over 2.2 million square kilometres of ocean. The islands themselves have a land surface of only 240 square kms. Sea levels are rising all around the Pacific, and threaten to destroy the Cook Islands beautiful, white sandy, but also the houses and infrastructure on the foreshore.  The Cooks are also subject to more frequent and extreme weather events such as cyclones and tropical storms.

Working with primary and secondary school students, UNESCO’s Sandwatch project helps coastal communities to work together to evaluate and address the problems and conflicts facing their beaches, and to become more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Who is affected?

About 20,000 people live in the Cook Islands, many of whom make their living from tourism, pearling and fishing. Each of these sectors is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. But such events also impact on other sectors as well, including the school system, and the health and safety of children.

Gail Townsend is a chemistry teacher from New Zealand, who has become an education policy planner in the Cook Islands.

“I have been in the Cooks for ten years,” she told an experts meeting in the Bahamas in 2011. “ in the first five I had no cyclones. In the last five, I’ve lived through eight. It’s really important that the whole community knows how the school will be managed and will react to a disaster, so that parents know their children are safe. It’s too late to worry about it once it happened. You have to make sure those plans are in place.”

Why does it matter ?

Climate change affects the Cook Islands in various ways:

Climate change research indicates that the ten hottest years on record have occurred since 1998. Sea levels have risen in a way consistent with the warming – since 1961, at an average of 1.8 millimetres per year, and since 1993 at 3.1 millimetres per year (UN Global Environmental Alert Service, April 2011). Rising seas levels in the Cook Islands affect the pearl industry and tourism. Pearls need certain temperatures to achieve peak production. If temperatures rise, pearl returns fall.

Apart from the threat to human lives, extreme weather events also take a heavy economic toll. In 2010, Cyclone Pat caused damages of about $8.2m to the Island of Aitutaki. Seventy eight percent of the islands buildings were damaged including all four schools. One of the schools was totally destroyed.

What is UNESCO doing?

UNESCO’s Sandwatch program was set up in the Caribbean in 1999 and then launched in the Cook Islands in 2003. In 2006 it was integrated into the school syllabus, with activities incorporated into science and social science units, as well as other subjects such as mathematics and visual arts.

In one activity, for example, students tested the quality of the water in Rarotonga’s Lagoon, measuring nutrient levels, water <a name="_GoBack"></a>clarity and lagoon bacteria.

Based on the results of their study, they made several recommendations to the relevant Government ministries, including:

  • Ministry of Health – establish proper sewage or septic waste assessments for buildings on the coastline and to conduct a regular monitoring assessment.
  • Ministry of Environment – toughen up the regulations on earth moving practices on house sections on the hill. Establish tough measures for the feeding of animals beside streams.
  • Ministry of Agriculture – Encourage farmers to use the natural fertilizers
  • Ministry of Marine – Regular check of the lagoon conditions and to inform the community on these conditions
  • Ministry of Education – encourage schools to take up these learning opportunities as part of their school programme

In conclusion the students sent a strong message to their communities: we cannot change what’s happening in our lagoon unless we change what we are doing on the land.

“The participating schools share their activities and findings,” says  Gail Townsend. At a national Sandwatch students conference in the Cook Islands, students the Aitutaki school that was destroyed by Cyclone Pat in 2010, told how Aitutaki was replanting mango trees, while another group related how they had been taught by village elders how to build a canoe. “So for us, Education for Sustainable development isn’t just about science,” said Townsend. “It’s culture, identity, it’s language. We have also taken the whole education for international understanding and peace education and placed it within out ESD programmes as well.”

The Sandwatch programme has been so successful that it is now operating in island nations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the Caribbean and countries in East Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. In 2008, the Sandwatch Foundation was set up as a non-governmental organization to coordinate and promote the Sandwatch project and to seek funding for it. The foundation is supported by UNESCO’s education and science sectors, and has received contributions from national and international organizations, both governmental and non-governmental.

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