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  • By Diana G. Mendoza

Pacific Island countries in danger zone, says study

The closer people live near the coastal areas, the more they expose themselves to the risks of their proximity to the sea, according to a research study that looked at the vulnerability of populations in the 22 Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs) due to population movements and climate change.

Almost all residents of PICTs live within 10 km of the coast while people in five coral atoll nations (Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Tokelau, and Tuvalu) live with a kilometer of the sea, as do nearly three quarters of Micronesians, the study found out. A greater proportion of Melanesians live more than 10 km from the sea due mainly to the size and geology of their islands.

Published in the science journal Plos One, the research study cited the United Nations Environment Program that categorizes people as “coastal” if they live less than 100 km from the sea. By that measure, almost all PICT residents, including in Papua New Guinea, are coastal. However, PNG is the “clear outlier with over 70 percent of the population living more than 10 km from the coast.”

In these coastal communities, the ocean looms large as a source of food, wealth and cultural identity but also as a source of acute and chronic threats such as earthquakes, tsunami, inundation and erosion caused by cyclone induced wave surge, and the long-term manifestations of sea level rise among other damaging phenomena all increase the exposure and vulnerability of coastal populations.

The study identified Vanuatu, Tonga, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea as among the world’s most disaster-prone nations. “More chronic threats, from drought, saltwater intrusion of freshwater aquifers, and changing patterns in the productivity of fisheries from cyclic weather phenomena add to a challenging policy and planning landscape,” the study said.

The study noted the limited data that cannot support a better prediction of danger among countries in this region. But through the use of global data sources such as Landscan and GPWv4 models that both looked at the concentration of populations in rural coastal villages and areas with developed infrastructure, the study determined that the coastal zones of small island states are “hotspots of human habitation and economic endeavor.” In the Pacific region, as elsewhere, “there are large gaps in understandings of the exposure and vulnerability of people in coastal zones,” the study further stated.

The study pointed to the factor of elevation that, if measured accurately, can be helpful in determining if coastal residency can be dangerous. It cited the concept of the low elevation coastal zone (LECZ), which is defined as “land area contiguous with the coastline and less than 10 m elevation” that is often incorporated in the analyses of exposure and vulnerability.

“As more people move toward the coast and urbanize, inclusion of LECZ data in national disaster vulnerability analyses will significantly improve predictions and disaster risk scenarios,” the study stated. More coastal people may be found in a single district in the LECZ of southwest Bangladesh than in the whole Pacific region.

The study, however, lamented that the 22 PICTs are poorly represented in global analyses of vulnerability to seaward risks, and this further marginalizes them from global narratives, particularly concerning the consequences of climate change.

It referred to the results and data layers that it hopes will promote better inclusion of Pacific countries and territories in global summaries, lists of vulnerable countries, and improve national reporting on sustainable development goals.

“Were that to happen, PICTS will feature prominently in the Top 10 lists of exposed and vulnerable nations and territories.” said the study.


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