Jun 18, 2018 Last Updated 6:23 AM, Jun 15, 2018

Water and biodiversity

Cornerstone of life in the islands

Biological Diversity or ‘Biodiversity’ refers to the variety of all living things on Earth—all species, genetic resources and ecosystems, and how they function and interact. Biodiversity is the cornerstone of life in the Pacific—our plants, animals, and ecosystems are essential for livelihoods of Pacific people. It has helped shape our culture and traditions. In our region, it is becoming increasingly clear that biodiversity, associated ecosystems and the services they provide, is one of the best “frontline” responses to a changing climate and rising sea levels. Biodiversity is important for the protection of important ecosystem services such as the provision of clean water, which is the most vital resource on which all life on earth depends. Due to its wide-ranging importance across all sectors of society, the United Nations has declared 2013 as the Year of Water Cooperation—recognising that partnerships are vital to the ongoing protection and management of water resources to satisfy both human and developmental needs. However, it is increasingly obvious that water is one of the major limiting factors for our life in the Pacific. In 2011 and 2012, we saw dramatic droughts and water shortages in our region, resulting in the declaration of a State of Emergency in Tokelau, Tuvalu, and the northern islands of the Cook Islands.

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‘There’s so much not known’: Sheppard

As global experts prepare for a world conference on nature conservation in Fiji in December, the region’s peak environment body claims enough is not known about the Pacific’s biodiversity to make long-term decisions on the region. Ideally called, Building Resilience for a Changing Pacific, the ninth Pacific Islands Conference on Nature Conservation and Protected Areas will attract 800 delegates at the Suva summit with a view to laying a new platform for environment protection in future.

The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), co-ordinating the event, expects to produce a strategy for nature conservation and biodiversity in the Pacific over 2014-2018. But experts ask the question, how could the December conference make informed decisions when we are ill-equipped with research knowledge about the state of affairs of our oceans and land mass? Islands governments or agencies like SPREP are inadequately resourced to examine or fund such research of the region’s seabed—where there appears to be an abundance of mineral deposits like gold, cobalt, silver, copper and manganese.

“There’s so much that isn’t known,” says David Sheppard, SPREP director-general. He said recent indications are that at least a third of the species in our oceans are actually new to science. “So it’s likely the more studies undertaken, the more (likely) new species will be discovered.” If the state or nature of the vast resources is not fully comprehended by government departments or experts in the region, then the potential environmental impacts of future mining can’t be appropriately managed.

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NZ innovation could be the answer

Each week from November to July, ornithologist Eric VanderWerf drives from Honolulu to this sandy nature reserve on Oahu Island’s northwestern peninsula to count seabirds chicks and check his rodent traps. Last year, the 20-hectare point was separated from the rest of Oahu by a high-tech fence—the first in the United States—with a mesh so fine even baby mice can’t get through. All predators were removed, effectively returning it to its prehuman state some 800 years ago, when the island had no land mammals and millions of seabirds flocked here to breed undisturbed. The fence, developed in New Zealand to protect the flightless Kiwi from rats and dogs introduced by Polynesians, is becoming a tool of choice for those trying to stem the decline of ocean-going seabirds like albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters whose numbers have been declining faster than any other category of birds. The most accessible islands have had their alien predators eradicated over the past few decades, and today conservationists are turning their sights either towards much bigger islands or towards slices of coastline like Kaena Point. After examining the last of his 150 traps, the tall, deeply tanned ornithologist remarks on a recent afternoon, “We’re sure there’s no more predators—that’s rats, mice, cats, dogs and mongoose. Once in a while, though, one gets around the fence, but we’ve caught it every time so far.” As for the birds, he says the point’s colony of Laysan albatrosses—majestic birds with a wingspan of 7 feet)—had increased by 15 percent to 400 since the fence was finished in March, 2011. And the number of wedge-tailed shearwater chicks who survived and flew off tripled to 1,775.

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Natural solutions, way to go

The people of the Pacific Islands have a long history of living and coping with a highly variable climate and environment. Constraints faced by Pacific islands societies historically were not much different to the issues faced by many Pacific societies today: limited arable land, deforestation, limited freshwater, high population growth and depletion of natural resources, and vulnerability to extreme events such as cyclones, droughts, earthquakes and tsunamis. Responses to these constraints included various social controls on natural resource use, population control and voluntary or forced migration to other islands.

These offered a high degree of resilience to climatic events. Rapid climate change is now increasing the vulnerability of Pacific islands societies, adding to the many environmental problems that continue to limit options for future generations of Pacific Islanders. These changes include the intensity, frequency and distribution of extreme events, changes in temperature and precipitation patterns, ocean acidification and sea level rise. Utilisation of natural resources underpins the national and local economies of Pacific countries. Climate change undermines the capacities of many ecosystems to continue to provide these services and its impact will increase if other threats to the productive ecosystems of the Pacific are not addressed.

To address these climate change impacts, it is increasingly recognised that Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA), or “natural solutions” can and must play a critical role.

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Not good news for the region

It is said that ‘knowledge is power’ and as we embark on a new voyage for 2013, we do so armed with the knowledge provided by a regional environment outlook report that will steer us towards stronger actions and commitments. The Pacific Environment and Climate Change Outlook Report 2012 clearly shows that the Pacific islands are increasingly being threatened in terms of food, water and livelihood security and calls on us all to step up and do more. It is now evident that the current actions taken by the Pacific are insufficient to meet the growing challenges posed by climate change and environmental degradation. The pressures of population growth and unsustainable patterns of consumption, production and coastal development combined with climate change impacts pose major threats to the region’s food, water and livelihood security. At every point of our journey through 2013 and beyond, we will be faced with these challenges which we must address together. The ‘Pacific Environment and Climate Change Outlook Report’ notes that land accounts for only two percent of the Pacific islands region and that water availability and its management is a key constraint to sustainable development.

For example, leakage in water systems affects up to 50 percent of the water supply of the region as water conservation practices are not often practised. According to the report, the rates of native biodiversity decline and habitat loss in the region are among the highest in the world. For example, in our region, the IUCN Red List notes that 60 percent of reptiles, 21 percent of mammal species and 13 percent of birds are considered threatened.

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