Innovation by the sea: How Small Island Developing States are combating climate change

March 25, 2022


This interview with Riad Meddeb was originally published in GovInsider.

“No ocean, no life. No ocean, no us,” said marine biologist Sylvia Earle in a documentary that followed her campaign to save the world’s oceans. Her words ring especially true for Small Island Developing States (SIDS), which depend heavily on oceans for their development.

SIDS have borne the brunt of the climate crisis for many years, despite contributing little to it. Yet, they are showing significant ambition and commitment to transformation. The island states are turning to their marine environment, renewable energy, and digital innovation to mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change.

Riad Meddeb, Director of the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development, shares challenges that SIDS face and how they are making progress on their climate goals.

Banking on nature for coastal protection

SIDS are often remotely located from the rest of the world, surrounded by oceans, and have limited access to resources. This makes them highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and habitat degradation.

Natural marine resources could help to protect the coasts of SIDS. SIDS have rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources across 90.1 per cent of the world’s oceans, but the potential to tap on this remains largely unexplored, Meddeb notes.

These marine resources can keep the impact of climate change at bay. For instance, coastal wetland plants like salt marshes and seagrass beds capture and store carbon dioxide so they are not released into the atmosphere. Mangroves also protect coastal areas from storm surges and flooding.

Singapore’s water agency PUB is using mangroves to protect Singapore’s coastlines, GovInsider wrote. The Maldives is also designating at least one mangrove in each of its 20 islands as a protected area, wrote Prospect Magazine. The mangroves will help countries mitigate coastal disaster risks such as tsunami coastal erosion.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions

SIDS are transitioning to renewable energy as many rely on imported fossil fuels to power their countries. Having a stable, reliable, and affordable electricity supply is a top priority, Meddeb notes.

For instance, Dominica has set up a geothermal power plant that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 38,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to Globe Newswire. The country has many hot springs, geysers, and volcanoes, making it a good location to capture geothermal energy.

Moving towards renewable energy will increase SIDS’ resilience to energy supply disruptions. It will also allow them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Meddeb says.

Shipping presents another opportunity for cutting carbon emissions. Maritime transport is key to the survival of SIDS because of their remote location from economic markets and dependence on trade, Meddeb says.

A coalition of Pacific island nations is looking to raise US$500 million to reduce carbon emissions from shipping in the region to zero by 2050, Nautilus International reported. The fund will be used to explore renewable energy sources such as solar energy and design fuel cells that last longer.

Food resilience and e-commerce

SIDS are increasing the supply of local food and reducing reliance on imported food for greater food security. “A majority of the population of SIDS are coastal and urban populations. They…need to replace imported processed food with healthy locally farmed produce wherever possible,” Meddeb shares.

“In Singapore, we see opportunities for digital agriculture,” he shares. Rooftop farms have become a common sight in many of the island state’s residential buildings. This measure is in line with the country’s targets to produce 30 per cent of its own food by 2030, Channel News Asia reported.

Residents of Barbados may soon be able to buy locally and sustainably farmed fish online with BlueFISH, according to UNDP’s website. The tool measures fisheries catch data, such as fish species, size, and quantity. Authorities can use the data to crack down on overfishing and manage fish populations.

In other SIDS, local communities have adapted to food demand and supply challenges through e-commerce.

During the pandemic, farmers continued to harvest produce but taxi drivers were no longer fetching tourists, Meddeb observes. To sustain their livelihoods, farmers sold their products to locals who were faced with rising imported food prices and engaged taxi drivers for transportation, he explains.

“Digital transformation does not mean that you have to use high-end technology,” Meddeb remarks. Rather, it is about using simple solutions that already exist, he adds.

Promoting access to healthcare 

Some small island states have also used tech to improve accessibility, especially for crucial services such as healthcare.

The UNDP launched an eHospital app that provides virtual medical and psychological consultations to patients in Manabao, Dominican Republic. The app allows residents to receive prescriptions and follow up on their treatments without having to travel outside their community.

The eHospital decreases the cost of accessing quality care, UNDP wrote. The people of Manabao have to travel a long way and incur hefty expenses, including for logistics and transportation. This initiative helps to eliminate these barriers.

Looking ahead 

Moving forward, the UNDP is building an insights and visualisation platform. SIDS will be able to use the data to develop their own policies and strategies as well as respond to future crises.

The database will collect data such as countries’ renewable energy consumption and natural resource depletion, according to UNDP’s website.

Accelerating investment in SIDS will remain a top priority for UNDP.

The Global Fund for Coral Reefs is one of the many ways UNDP supports SIDS in bridging their development finance gaps. The organisation will use the money for reef conservation efforts, its website wrote. Coral reefs help to protect coastlines from storms and erosion, provide jobs for local communities, and offer opportunities for recreation.

The innovation and resilience SIDS have demonstrated in the face of climate change are more than a drop in the ocean. These countries are not passive victims of their circumstances but active champions of their development.