Climate change: Remote islands are struggling

Pacific Islands are characterized by their remoteness. This has massive influence on the economic development of islands and their capacity to adapt to climate change. Only a few shipping lines connect the dispersed islands with the world and bring merchandises, resources and experts to the islands. Imports and exports and the repairing of damages after disasters are thus extremely expensive.

Video message from the SIDS Conference 2014

In September 2014, a Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) was hold in Samoa. An impressive video showed how remote Pacific Islands are especially struggling to cope with climate Change:

The role of Fiji

Fiji has a central role for the developement of the region. The airport on Fiji has regular international flights and serves as hub to distribute goods in the region. Most regional organizations and many embassies are centralized in Fiji’s capital Suva. The University of South Pacific in Suva is the intellectual center of Oceania. It is financed by 12 insular states. Many countries are also dependant on the higher level of health services of Fiji.

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved.


Moai Easter Island

History matters: The collapse of Easter Island

About 400 year ago a complete deforestation on Easter Island lead to a collapse of the Easter society. Jared Diamond described in its bestseller ’Collapse’ the reasons for this ‘ecoside’. The author pursues the question why some societies collapsed and others didn’t. 

Different pathways of Tikopia and Easter Island

Tikopia Island and Easter Island are both tiny South Pacific island which faced similar environmental problems of forest destruction in history. On Tikopia Island people were able to manage their problems by micromanagement of resources and a strong regulation of population size Tikopai successfully gardened the island and hold their population constant. On Easter Island people took the disastrous decision to fell the last tree. This environmental collapse lead to starvation, civil war and cannibalism on Easter Island. 

The failure of elites

What made the difference? Tikopia was a small island with a bottom-up governance. Village leaders were familiar with the entire island and identified the common sustainable long-term interest of sustainable. Decisions were taken collectively. However on Easter Island central political were blind to deforestation problems and failed to make decisions because they were preoccupied with short-term motivated power conflicts of the elites and were distant to the problems of the People. 

Shifting baselines

People on Easter Island failed also to notice the problem because gradual change of the surrounding landscape was taken for granted since people experienced in their personal life no other way how the environment looked like. The state of a deforested island was normal for them because they did not know how the island looked like 50 years ago. This creeping normalcy lead to a ship in baselines, so that people failed to notice the urgency of the problem.

Learning from history

The collapse of Easter Island can been seen as metaphor for the challenge of climate change laying ahead of us. Societies can fail. But Jared Diamond showed with the example of Tikopia Island that there is no environmental determinism of doomsday scenarios. Mindful long-term motivated political decisions of political leaders makes the difference. Diamond highlights that it is important to consider the time-lag of climate change and the momentum of political decisions. If decisions are taken too late, we might not be able to solve problems any more.

Though the book is already some years old, the analysis of Diamond is still brilliant and up-to-date more than ever.

Diamond, Jared (2005) Collapse. How societies choose to fail or to succeed, New York, Penguin Books.

.Jared Diamond: Collapse

United Nations Climate Summit Opening Ceremony – A poem to my Daughter

Voices of Pacific islander are calling for action on the United Nations Climate Summit in New York. The author of this poem Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner addressed already her thoughts and feelings to the Opening Ceremony of the UN Small Developing Islands Conference in Apia, Samoa in September 2014  :

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

On 23 September 2014, I  addressed the Opening Ceremony of the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit. I performed my new poem entitled “Dear Matafele Peinem” written to my daughter.

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PET bottles

The story of FIJI Water – A green and fair product?


From a European perspective Fiji is the most distant place of the world. But we are related with this country by our globalized consumption: The water brand FIJI Water.

Green marketing of FIJI Water

Since 1996 Fiji Water exports bottled water from a Fijian aquifer to international consumers. It is today is one of the leading brands of bottled water worldwide. Selling bottled water from the other side of the world to green consumers seems to be a contradiction. FIJI Water overcomes this dilemma by effective green marketing: The key marketing message is a carbon negative commitment. Drinking a bottle of FIJI Water makes consumer feel like transforming the world to a better place. For this feeling people are ready to pay higher prices than for other bottled water brands.

Ecological footprint of FIJI Water

But FIJI Water is far from being a ‘green’ product. The ecological footprint of a bottle ‘FIJI water’ is disastrous: The local aquifer is exploited 24 hours a day with electricity from diesel generators (Fishman, 2007). Energy use for the transport of bottles with container ships is also high. It is estimated that the production and transport of one bottle FIJI Water releases 81 g of fossil fuels and uses up 720 g of water (Päster; 2007). The plastic bottles of FIJI Water are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). At the end of the life cycle they leave a disposal problem, because recycling rates for PET are low. PET bottles are unable to decompose for thousands of years. When PET bottles are burned toxic pollution is released to the atmosphere.

FIJI water tries to compensate this with a carbon offset policy. The company analysed the carbon footprint of the production and transport process and claims to overcompensate the carbon emissions by 120 % by investing in energy and conservation projects. (Bloxham, 2011; Lenzer, 2009). 1% of their sales are invested to rainforest conservation projects on Fiji in cooperation with the NGO Conservation International (FIJI Water, 2014). But carbon offset programs do not lead to an absolute cut in emissions. They are rather a ‘buy-out strategy’ which legitimize emissions for those who are able to pay for it.

Fair Trade of FIJI Water?

Is FIJI Water at least a ‘Fair Trade’ brand which takes Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) seriously? It is true that the company is socially engaged on Fiji Island. The ‘FIJI Water Foundation’ funds the construction of hygiene, sanitation and education facilities and clean water projects on the island. The company is also considered as good employer because wages are above local average wage (Goldberg, 2014). FIJI water works with local PET bottle suppliers to support local economy (Lynch at al., 2010).

20 % of the exports of Fiji are made by Fiji Water (Goldberg, 2014). Though the company earned hundreds of millions with product sales, Fiji did long time not profit from this strong business actor. Till 2010 the company enjoyed nearly a zero tax regime in Fiji. Today FIJI Water pays over $20 million taxes per year (Goldberg, 2014). But accounting practices of FIJI Water set up entities of the company in tax havens to avoid Fiji’s 28 percent corporate tax (Bridgman, 2013). Like other multinationals FIJI Water invested in mineral water companies of New Zealand to be able to threaten to move to another country at any time (Dornan, 2010).

Exploitation of water resources

An interesting question is also how FIJI Water acquired the right to the commercial use of the public good water. The aquifer on Fiji’s main island Viti Levu was discovered in the early 1990s. The government of Fiji had no financial means to tap into the aquifer for public use. With its good contacts to the ruling military regime, the Canadian investor David Gilmour acquired in 1996 a 99 year lease for an exclusive access to the aquifer (Lenzer, 2009).

FIJI Water claim that the aquifer on Viti Levu is self-sustaining. But yet, no research about the recharge ability of the aquifer exists. Rules for limiting commercial abstractions to a sustainable level are not fixed. Since the resource is not managed and climate change alter precipitation patterns, it could be exhausted someday. Remote Pacific islands have no plan B, when water resources are exhausted. Already today 110 small island of Fiji rely constantly on governmental water transport vessels (Kumar, 2010).

Self-declared green marketing claims are misleading: FIJI water is an unstainable product. It is easy to avoid imported bottled water: We can simply drink our healthy local tap water.

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved.


Water shortage in paradise

Surrounded by sparkling blue sea, many Pacific Islands facing the risk that freshwater scarcity could turn their islands uninhabitable. Tuvalu declared in 2011 the state of emergency due to water scarcity. During six month it did not rain on the remote atolls. Approximately 1,500 people of the 11,000 inhabitants run out of fresh water (BBC, 2011; International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2011).

Why is there water scarcity on Pacific Islands?

One reason for the water crisis is climate change. Nations like Tuvalu are tiny atoll islands with thin freshwater lenses and no rivers or lakes. The warming trend lead to higher evaporation rates, so that more precipitation is required to replenish the freshwater lens. By sea level rise, more seawater pushes against the freshwater lens of atolls, so that groundwater gets too salty to drink.

Since groundwater is not potable, rainfall collected by roof catchments is often the primary source of freshwater. This makes people very vulnerable to droughts. The region is characterized by dry and wet seasons and strong variation of precipitation patterns due to the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Every two to six years La Niña periods with drought conditions occur. With climate change, ENSO events become more intense with longer periods of drought. But during the drought crisis of Tuvalu in 2011, precipitation pattern lay in the range of normal variations (Pacific Climate Change Science Program 2011). Why was Tuvalu not any more able to meet the citizen’s needs for water?

 Other driving forces for water stress

The driving force for water scarcity is not only the lack of resources, it is also a question of an increased water demand. In the last years the domestic use of water grew with new lifestyles, cars, washing machines, and imported food. Households got equipped with flush toilets which increased the water demand increased by 25-40 % (GEF Pacific IMRW, 2012).

Problems were exacerbated by a high population density. With 333.3 people per km2 Tuvalu has today one of the highest population density in the world (FAO, 2012). The rapid population growth lead to a fast urbanization with quickly constructed insufficient water infrastructure. Rain tanks are often leaking. The growing number of family members compromises the water security in drought periods, because water tanks were constructed to cater a smaller number of family members. Many people have no paid work, so that they cannot afford to buy new water tanks. For households without income, even low fees for water from public cistern can be too much.

Poor families use the salty groundwater as emergency water source in periods of drought. But today, groundwater is often contaminated by heavy metals from waste dumps and by facial bacteria from leaking septic tanks. Health authorities on Tuvalu strongly recommend not to drink well water. But in drought periods poor people and islanders far from public cisterns have no choice. Therefore, waterborne and water-related diseases like diarrhoea and cholera, are likely to occur.

How to cope with the problem of water scarcity?

Disaster risk reduction measures are cheaper than emergency relief. The increase of water storage capacities and sustainable use of local water resources has a high priority for Pacific island nations. Water catchments get improved, communities get equipped with desalination units and dry composting toilets are installed. Educational videos like “Falevatia: A toilet for our future.” highlights the benefits of this low tech solutions:


Public awareness campaigns seek to improve knowledge about water resource management. Since national TV channels do not exist, the radio is the best way to reach people on remote islands. Weather forecasts get improved because in situations of drought they give time for emergency adaption.

Water scarcity could also compromise the food security of islands. Pulaka (Cyrtosperma chamissonis) is the main staple of the traditional diet of Pacific islanders. It has a low capacity to tolerate saltwater. Crops die due to saline water contamination, so that the cultivation of salt resistant crops is now promoted.

Outlook to the future: Is it too late for domestic adaption?

Regional governments are aware of the limits of adaption. A growing population compete over the allocation of water resources. It is not sure, if islands can cope to with less stable precipitation patterns in the future. The IPCC stated in the Forth Assessment Report that it is very likely that low-lying island states are getting entirely uninhabitable long before their full submersion due to the lack of water (Mimura et al., 2007). Some settlements had to be already relocated due to the lack of water.

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved.