PIONEERING ENVIRONMENTAL WORK ASSESSES VULNERABILITY OF PACIFIC ISLANDS

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SUVA, Fiji Islands (August 7, 2000 - PINA Nius Online)---A major development in determining the environmental vulnerability of island states was explained to delegates at the recent joint Asia-Pacific and Commonwealth environmental journalism congress at Nadi.

Craig Pratt, an environmental scientist with the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC), discussed SOPAC¹s cutting edge work in developing the Environmental Vulnerability Index (EVI). This is a standardized method of assessing the vulnerability of countries. So far in the region, four countries have been assessed using it: Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu and Tuvalu.

The joint congress of the Asia-Pacific Forum of Environmental Journalists (APFEJ) and the Commonwealth Environmental Journalists Association (CEJA) had the theme, "Climate Change and Island States: The Role of the Media." The Pacific Islands News Association's PINA Pacific Forum of Environmental Journalists hosted it.

Mr. Pratt explained how in 1994, the Barbados Program of Action called for the development of a composite vulnerability index that included economic and environmental concerns. Mr. Pratt told how SOPAC was given the mandate to develop a regional initiative to address environmental vulnerability, consistent with this and the needs of the Alliance of Small Island States. It was felt that a general, standardized measurement tool was needed to show how vulnerable small island countries are.

SOPAC, a Suva-based regional organization established in 1972, is dedicated to providing geo-technical services to its 18 member countries in the Pacific region.

Looking at both human systems -- such as lifestyles, economic factors – and natural systems -- such as pollution absorption and ecosystems – SOPAC acknowledged that both have effects on the environment. In the rush to develop, countries often exploit natural resources and develop industry without environmental consideration. The degradation of the environment often leads to a lower quality of life, and therefore both must be addressed when assessing environmental vulnerability.

Language and definitions must be the same for a standardized environmental index. SOPAC defines vulnerability as "the potential for attributes of a system to be damaged by exogenous impacts" -- or, how the environment might be impacted. The flipside of vulnerability, Mr. Pratt explained, is resilience, or "the potential to minimize or absorb the effects of these damaging impacts." In other words, how likely a country is to be hit by a cyclone, and how prepared the country is in the event a cyclone were to hit.

Risks to the environment are not just natural -- many are created through human action. Risks include meteorological events (cyclones, droughts), geological events (landslides, tsunamis), anthropogenic events (pollution, urbanization), climate change and sea level rise. A variety of elements in the environment are vulnerable to these risks -- ecosystems, marine life and other species, resources and people. Building up resilience to environmental degradation is similar to building up an immune system, and vulnerability looks at both the risks and the resilience of systems.

SOPAC designed the Environmental Vulnerability Index (EVI) to look at 47 indicators. The indicators fall into three sub-categories: exposure to risk, both natural and human-induced, intrinsic resilience of a system and environmental degradation -- what the current state of the environment is, or the strength of the country¹s immune system to the environmental risks.

The indicator scale is weighted from one to seven, one being the lowest vulnerability level and seven being the highest. For example, a risk indicator would look at the number of years between droughts. A country which experienced 30 years between droughts would score one on the vulnerability scale; a country which experienced a drought two years in a row would score seven on the scale, meaning that country was highly vulnerable in that area.

The EVI then takes the scores of all 47 indicators and averages them to reach one number, a summary number which meets the international agendas in line with the Barbados Plan of Action. The EVI is a useful tool for scientists, governments, donors and the general public to see how vulnerable a country is. The EVI provides evidence, however, how to deal with environmental vulnerability is still an issue for policy makers to decide. The role of the media is to take the information to the general public.

Mr. Pratt said that the EVI could also be used when evaluating Least Developed Countries (as defined by the United Nations). In the region, particularly, environmental vulnerability is a factor in determining how much money is given to countries in terms of aid, loans, grants and projects is largely tied in with their development status; therefore the EVI is an important tool to be applied. For example, the United Nations recently recommended that Vanuatu and Samoa "graduate" out of the Least Developed Countries range -- as in the past only GDP and economic variables were looked at. However, the UN is now looking at other factors, such as the environment.

In its preliminary phase of testing the EVI, SOPAC looked at Australia, Fiji and Tuvalu and found obvious results -- the small island country of Tuvalu scored much higher on the EVI than Australia. In the second phase results, SOPAC looked at Fiji, Tuvalu, Samoa and Vanuatu, and also came up with an EVI Country Profile, that acts as a "score card" for the countries’ individual environmental weaknesses. By designing a country profile, SOPAC was able to look at what issues are important for each country, whether the issues are natural or human-induced.

The EVI is a crucial step towards advancing the issue of environmental harms and damage, not only in the region but also internationally. It is a way to show the international community that small island developing nations are not simply crying about vulnerability, but trying to address vulnerability.

The EVI provides a comprehensive measure of environmental vulnerability of a country. It also has a predictive value for identifying vulnerability issues, types of hazards and approaches to stewardship of the environment of a country. And finally, it can be used as a measure of change in environmental vulnerability and the actions that increase of decrease it. It is a tool for measuring sustainable developing, and is useful for the state of the environment reports.

On the international arena, other regions and international bodies are looking at this innovative approach and have expressed interest in learning more about the EVI, Mr. Pratt explained. The Pacific has taken the initiative in coming to grips with environmental vulnerability, giving the international community something tangible to see.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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