Guest Article #76

Indian Ocean Islands Call on Rio+20 to Focus on Climate Change

“Islands are the barometers of international environmental policies. The entire world will first witness their success or their failure on our islands.” These words, of James Michel, the President of Seychelles, deserve to be spoken out loud as delegates from small island developing States (SIDS) gear up to defend their interests at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20).

SIDS serve as the guardians of a "planet under pressure," whose point of no return is unknown. These concerns are central to the activities of the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC), the only African intergovernmental organisation made up entirely of islands. At Rio+20, IOC will voice the views of its Member States, namely: Comoros, France/Reunion, Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles. IOC will highlight the specific vulnerabilities faced by these islands and advocate for the international community to grant them special and differential treatment.

Chaired by Seychelles since January 2012, the IOC will count on the leadership and determination of James Michel in Rio to deliver his message to participating nations. In February 2012, at the Delhi Summit on Sustainable Summit, Michel expressed his disappointment with the international community for its inaction on climate change, 20 years after the first Rio Summit. He further emphasised the interlinkages between two of the major challenges of this century, namely sustainable development and climate change.

Whatever crises or uncertainties we now face, there is no more time for words. All the lights have turned red and the cost of inaction is growing. Our island nations are already dealing with the impacts of climate change. The fragile balance of our ecosystems, known for their extraordinary wealth, has already been weakened by often poorly-adapted development. Our vulnerable economies are also under threat, and our efforts to achieve sustainable development and fight against poverty risk to be undone.

In Madagascar, for example, the number of violent cyclones almost tripled between 1975 and 2004. It also appears that, globally, the frequency of these intense cyclones is rising. For the ‘Big Island,' which is among the top ten countries in the world most vulnerable to cyclones, this trend is particularly worrying as 65% of its population live along the coast and post-cyclone socioeconomic recovery takes an average of five years. The other impacts of climate change include the effect of coral bleaching on marine biodiversity, the threats to food security and increased water scarcity.

Due to its multi-sectoral dimension, climate change creates new and fundamental challenges for IOC, whose operations have grown in recent years. It is within this context that the IOC's five Member States launched the ACCLIMATE Project in 2008 to help strengthen their coping mechanisms. As the first project of its kind in the southwest Indian Ocean, ACCLIMATE set about to create a regional climate profile and define, for each country, their degree of vulnerability in 12 key sectors (including food security, freshwater, biodiversity, and infrastructure).

This assessment process led to the development of a draft regional adaptation strategy, a roadmap to shape regional action. Once validated, this strategy will be an asset for the region allowing it to step up its efforts to address climate change. Conditions are now ripe for considering the creation of a regional hub, with resources for both climate change mitigation and adaptation, such as the Southern Africa Science Service Centre for Climate Change and Adaptive Land Management (SASSCAL), which has recently been set up. Aside from knowledge sharing and developing best practices, an arrangement of this kind would allow science, training and technical knowledge to be pooled, and funding to be tailored to suit the needs of countries in the region, or even support their interests in climate change negotiations.

Many factors encourage IOC to continue in this direction. Other ongoing projects are already working along these lines, including the Regional Initiative for the Adaptation of small-scale Agriculture to Climate Change (IRACC) and the Regional Disaster Risk Reduction Project. More recently, the ISLANDS project, responsible for implementing the Mauritius Strategy in the region, also joined the fight against climate change for the sustainable development of SIDS.

Since 1992, IOC has been the only regional platform committed to the sustainable development of SIDS in the Indian Ocean. IOC is now striving for the full cooperation among SIDS. To this end, Rio+20 presents an opportunity for IOC to sign two cooperation protocols, namely with the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and with the Carribean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC). Such gateways pave the way for an enhanced “SIDS-SIDS” collaboration. However, for this form of South-South cooperation to be effective, the current structure of funding conditions will have to be amended to ensure that it is tailored to the specific challenges faced by SIDS. [IOC Website] [Acclimate Project Website]