Will Habitat III note the unique urbanization of small island states?

Malé, the capital of the Maldives. (Shahee Ilyas/Flickr/cc)

The threat to small islands from global climate change is a unique one. For those islands that are also independent countries, many are in danger of disappearing entirely off the map.

In 2009, the government of the Maldives epitomized this fear by hosting an underwater meeting of its cabinet. The publicity stunt made headlines worldwide and underscored what a delegate from Nauru told the United Nations Security Council the same year: “Never before has a United Nations member state disappeared. Now we are faced with the threat of losing many owing to the adverse effects of climate change.”

There is still time to pursue policies and strategies that will help these countries — collectively known as Small Island Developing States (SIDS) — adapt to climate change. UN-Habitat is pushing a particular angle on that front by emphasizing the importance of urbanization through its Cities and Climate Change Initiative (CCCI), which published a report on the issue, “Urbanization and Climate Change in Small Island Developing States”, in May.

The context for this discussion may initially bring to mind beaches and palm trees. But the new report makes it clear that the 65 million people that live on today’s Small Island Developing States are highly urbanized — more so than regions that typically receive significantly more attention on urban issues, such as Africa and Asia.

Some 38 million residents, 59 percent of SIDS inhabitants, live in urban areas. In the small-island context, this can take unique forms — a small town comprised of villages stretching along a coastline, for instance, or a collection of villages on a single island or even spread across islets.

Islands like tiny Nauru (population 10,000) and much larger Singapore (5.2 million) are considered 100 percent urbanized. Many others hover in the 60-90 percent range, although some show much lower levels. Overall the average rate of urbanization for SIDS countries is 1.4 percent, just below the global average of 1.7 percent but as high as 4.3 percent in the Pacific.

“The 65 million people that live on today’s Small Island Developing States are highly urbanized — more so than regions that typically receive significantly more attention on urban issues, such as Africa and Asia.”

While coastal cities around the world must prepare for rising sea levels and more intense natural disasters, those on islands are particularly vulnerable for many reasons. SIDS suffer from what economists call the “primacy of capitals”, meaning that most of the population and jobs are concentrated in a single capital city that is almost always on the coast or in a low-lying area. Moreover, those coastal capital cities typically rely on their connection to the ocean for natural resources and economic activity, the so-called blue economy.

Above all, says Marcus Mayr from UN-Habitat’s Climate Change Unit, “Land scarcity is a sad reality but a clear one.” Simply put, small islands don’t have room to waste on poor land-use decisions, especially when their land may be disappearing. “It is projected there will be sea-level rise of one metre in the next 50 to 70 years,” Mayr adds.

Caribbean vs. Pacific

Speaking at the Caribbean Urban Forum (CUF), held this month in St. Lucia, Mayr outlined key differences between the Caribbean and the Pacific. These are the two regions that are home to most SIDS, while a handful also lie in the Indian Ocean.

“The Caribbean SIDS are more advanced in terms of economic development, capacity, investment opportunities and interdependency with global trends. They are also more politically integrated,” he said, citing the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, whose secretariat is in St. Lucia.

“In the Pacific, sea level rise is a bigger threat,” Mayr continued. “The Pacific also has huge SIDS that are more disconnected without such a sense of nationhood.”

Unlike most Caribbean island states, some Pacific nations sprawl across hundreds of islands, some more than a thousand miles apart.

However, forums like CUF and its counterpart, the Pacific Urban Forum, most recently held in March in Fiji, provide opportunities to put urbanization squarely on these regions’ collective agendas. Specifically, these events offer the opportunity to adopt the region-specific urban agendas that will be particularly important in the run-up to next year’s Habitat III conference on cities.

The outcome documents from these two regional forums — the Caribbean Urban Agenda and the Pacific Urban Agenda — will in turn feed into the broader official regional reports that will inform the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year global strategy on urbanization that will be decided upon at Habitat III. In this case, formal reports will come from Latin America and the Caribbean as well as Asia-Pacific.

The Habitat III regional meeting for the Asia-Pacific will take place in Jakarta in mid-October, while that of Latin America and the Caribbean will happen in Mexico in February. A full calendar of related events is here.

Soft solutions

An event like CUF was also an opportunity for a disparate region to come together and share ideas and experiences around climate change and urbanization that can benefit from initiatives like UN-Habitat’s Cities and Climate Change Initiative.

In St. Lucia, for instance, the British Virgin Islands proudly shared its first-of-a-kind climate trust fund. Likewise, Danielle Edwards, a Dominican lawyer, asserted, “The Trinidadian model for planning and development is one we’d like to adopt.”

Major multilaterals also chimed in with their own strategies around climate change adaptation. Such approaches will be vital, given that while SIDS countries contribute only 1 percent of global greenhouse gases, they experience a disproportionate share of the impacts.

“In the action plan for Montego Bay, we’re planting mangroves and seedlings via coastal nurseries,” said Gilberto Chona, who oversees the Inter-American Development Bank’s Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative for Jamaica’s second-largest city.

Pursuing mangroves as a coastal defence rather than engineered solutions squares with the recommendations of UN-Habitat’s report on climate change and urbanization in island nations. The study argues that such “soft” infrastructure is more cost effective than expensive sea walls and storm-surge barriers, like those deployed in larger continental cities.

On the one hand, the unique urban conditions in SIDS countries inevitably lead to specific solutions. Yet on the other, UN-Habitat experts argue that these small island countries nevertheless will benefit from the same recipe for sustainable urbanization that the agency advocates worldwide: dense development, compact urban form and mixed-use communities.

As a British Virgin Islands representative pointed out, “More people on less land means that while people expect a house with a garden, that may not be possible.” Whether it’s being enacted in the smallest or largest country in the world, smart urban planning is smart urban planning.

Note: SIDS countries have banded together in the context of broader development processes currently underway. More information can be found here.

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