Pacific Islands must stop relying on foreign aid to adapt to climate change, because the money won’t last

Patrick Nunn, Author provided

Patrick D. Nunn, University of the Sunshine Coast and Roselyn Kumar, University of the Sunshine Coast

The storm of climate change is approaching the Pacific Islands. Its likely impact has been hugely amplified by decades of global inertia and the islands’ growing dependency on developed countries.

The background to this situation is straightforward. For a long time, richer developed countries have been underwriting the costs of climate change in poorer developing countries, leaving them reliant on Western solutions to their climate-related issues.


Read more: Their fate isn’t sealed: Pacific nations can survive climate change – if locals take the lead


But as rising sea water continues to encroach on these low-lying Pacific islands, inundating infrastructure and even cemeteries, it’s clear almost every externally sponsored attempt at climate adaptation has failed here.

And as the costs of adaptation in richer countries escalate, this funding support to developing countries will likely taper out in future.

We’ve researched climate change adaptation in the Pacific for more than 50 years. We argue this trend is not merely unsustainable, but also dangerous. Pacific Island nations must start drawing from traditional knowledge to adapt to climate change, rather than continue to rely on foreign funds.

The ruins of a sea wall on a coastline.
High waves destroyed this sea wall on Majuro Atoll (Marshall Islands). Patrick Nunn, Author provided

Western solutions don’t always work

On a global scale, climate adaptation strategies have largely been either ineffective or unsustainable.

This is especially the case in non-Western contexts, where Western science continues to be privileged. In the Pacific Islands, this is often because these Western strategies invariably subordinate, even ignore, funding recipients’ culturally grounded worldviews.

A good example is the desire of foreign donors to build hard structures, such as sea walls, to protect eroding coasts. This is the preferred strategy in richer nations.

However it does not embrace nature-based solutions such as replanting coastal mangroves, which can be more readily sustained in poorer contexts.

A likely scenario

The availability of external financial assistance means developing countries have become more dependent on their richer counterparts for climate change adaptation.

For example, between 2016 and 2019, Australia provided A$300 million to help Pacific Island nations adapt to climate change, committing to a further $500 million to 2025. This left little need or incentive for these countries to fund their own adaptation needs.


Read more: Pacific Island nations will no longer stand for Australia’s inaction on climate change


But imagine this climate change scenario. Ten years from now, unprecedented rainfall is dumped on Australia’s east coast over a prolonged period. Several cities become flooded and remain so for weeks.

In the aftermath, the Australian government scrambles to make recently flooded areas liveable once more. They build a series of massive coastal dikes – structures to prevent the rising sea from flooding populated areas.

The cost is exorbitant and unanticipated – like COVID-19 – so the government will look for ways to shuffle money around. This may well include reducing financial aid for climate change adaptation in poorer countries.

Plunging international aid

Economic modelling shows nations will incur massive costs this century to adapt to climate change within their own borders. So it’s almost inevitable wealthier countries will rethink the extent of their assistance to the developing world.

A chart showing the projected adaptation aid to the Pacific Islands.
Recent and projected Australian GDP and adaptation aid to Pacific Island. countries. Patrick Nunn, Author provided

In fact, even before the pandemic, Australia’s foreign aid budget was projected to decrease in real terms by nearly 12% from 2020 to 2023.

These factors do not bode well for developing countries, which will be facing higher climate adaptation costs and dwindling foreign aid assistance.


Read more: Australia is spending less on diplomacy than ever before – and its influence is suffering as a result


Building autonomy with ‘cashless adaptation’

Leaders of developing countries should anticipate this situation now, and reverse their growing dependence on outside assistance.

For example, rural communities in regions like the Pacific Islands could revive their use of “cashless adaptation”. This means developing ways of adapting livelihoods to climate change that cost nothing.

These methods include the intentional planting of surplus crops, the use of traditional methods of food preservation and water storage, the use of free locally-available materials and labour for constructing sea defences. And it perhaps even includes the recognition that living along coastal fringes exposes you unnecessarily to weather-related change.

Prior to globalisation, this is how it was for decades, even centuries, in places like the rural Pacific islands. Then, adaptation to a changing environment was sustained by cooperation with one another and the use of freely available materials, not with cash.

Researchers have also argued for such “looking forward to the past” strategies regarding Hawaii’s climate adaptation.

And research from last year in Fiji showed more rural communities still have and use a stock of traditional methods for anticipating and withstanding disasters, such as flood and drought.


Read more: Five years on from the earthquake in Bhaktapur, Nepal, heritage-led recovery is uniting community


We can take this argument further. Perhaps it’s time for Pacific Island nations to rediscover traditional medicines, at least for primary health care, to supplement western medicine.

Greater production and consumption of locally grown foods, over imported foods, is also an important and valuable transformation.

The future of the developing world

A hut with a large pointed roof, built with local materials.
Dirak faluw (‘men’s house’) at Wanyaan Village on Yap (Micronesia) was. constructed by community labour using local-available materials. Roselyn Kumar, Author provided

The need for nations to adapt to unanticipated phenomena like climate change and COVID-19 encourages de-globalisation – including that countries depend less on cross-border aid and economic activity. So it seems inevitable that under current global circumstances, smaller economies will be forced to become more efficient and self-reliant.

Restoring traditional adaptation strategies would not only drive effective and sustainable climate change adaptation, but also would restore residents’ beliefs in their own time-honoured ways of coping with environmental shocks.

This not only means finding ways to reduce costs through cashless adaptation, but also to explore radical ways of reducing dependency and increasing autonomy. An appeal to past practice, and traditional ways of coping, is well worth considering.

Patrick D. Nunn, Professor of Geography, School of Social Sciences, University of the Sunshine Coast and Roselyn Kumar, , University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

48 thoughts on “Pacific Islands must stop relying on foreign aid to adapt to climate change, because the money won’t last

  1. The economic, political, and historical significance of the climate movement is that the West is ceding its global hegemony to China in many different ways part of which is the transfer of the Pacific Islands, once Australia’s backwater, into Chinese hands. It began with UN lies about imaginary climate impacts in these nations and imaginary flows of climate impact funds from an inaginary 100 billion usd climate fund that stirred it all up and then vanished. There is a villain in this plot. From start to finish, that villain is the UN. The only rational climate action plan is to get rid of this cancer called the United Nations.

    https://tambonthongchai.com/2020/03/18/the-eco-crisis-ambition-of-the-un/

    https://tambonthongchai.com/2019/02/25/un/

    • High waves destroyed this sea wall on Majuro Atoll (Marshall Islands). Patrick Nunn, Author provided

      LOL. Who is calling that a “sea wall”, the UN?

      I have a better wall at the end of my garden.

      • “Storm surge washed away my poorly constructed boat dock” doesn’t carry the same guilt tariff.

      • Greg,
        Looks to be typical Third World construction, 4-6” of concrete with no rebar; at lest they didn’t use CMUs or bricks! That’s why many buildings used to fall down in Mexican earthquakes; rebar installed for inspections is taken down and moved to other job sites before pouring the concrete!

    • Agree Totally. The UN and its acolytes has its beady eye on the levers of global power; so should be broken up and disbanded.

      • Alastair,
        The UN has become an anti-American nest of vipers! Churchill envisioned a union of liberal Western democracies to lead the world toward liberty and prosperity; Roosevelt wanted to include his BFF Stalin so today we have an organization where the MAJORITY of member states are Communist, Socialist or totalitarian with abrogated rights for their citizen, especially women! The world has seen a dramatic drop in poverty over the last few decades; not because of UN policies or actions, but due to capitalism creating new products and wealth for people all over the world to benefit from!

        Have you ever noticed how often see trafficking and other scandals pop up wherever UN peacekeepers are deployed? Did you think it was unusual? We should kick the UN out of NYC, then maybe the crime rates would diminish! I guess that’s wishful thinking with DeBozo still in power, but wouldn’t it be GREAT to inflict them on the EU for fifty years or so!

  2. The article is based on the assumption that “Climate Change” has caused sea level rise and also that that amount of rise is sufficient to inundate cemeteries.
    Have either of those two assertions been established?
    The null hypothesis would be that normal erosion and siting cemeteries at or near SL is the cause of the problem.

    How high does SLR have to be to inundate an inland cemetery and how does that rise compare to IPCC measurements of ACTUAL rise?

    • If these islanders expect the oceans to never change, then they are ignorant of the world around them.

  3. “An appeal to past practice, and traditional ways of coping, is well worth considering.”

    Like throwing people into volcanoes?

      • n.n.,
        La Raza and other open-borders groups used to blatantly venerate the Aztec. I was never sure if it was for their practice of human sacrifice with some cannibalism thrown in as the state religion, or their extensive raiding of other neighboring cultures for slaves and victims of the aforementioned sacrificing! Like the Spartans, they were militant, racist slaveholders who deserved to be crushed by military action! Of course Cortez had a few advantages that Epaminondas and the Thebans were lacking like firearms!

  4. “This is especially the case in non-Western contexts, where Western science continues to be privileged.”

    C’mon, stop using the code word “Western.” We know what you mean. It’s White Science Privilege!

  5. The Dirak Faluw’s (‘men’s house’) at Wanyaan Village on Yap (Micronesia) and many similar traditional structure on South Pacific Islands like Fiji were. constructed by community labour using very sturdy methods using locally-available materials. They were always sited well clear of wave action, and flooding, set in cyclone sheltered areas of firm ground well suited to surviving anything that Nature would throw at them.
    The modern structures on the islands frequently are flimsy constructions, ill-sited for protection from the elements, often right on the water and are wrecked by moderate cyclones.
    In the old days people knew what they were doing, had long experience and guarded themselves against Nature.
    Now they blame Climate Change and ask the UN for free money.

  6. The Pacific Islanders won’t stop harassing the UN about fulfilling their end of the bargain to claim climate catastrophe until they get their money. Simple. Blatant reverse black mailing.

  7. Born on Guam (true, has to do with 409 typhoon chasers command pilot father) a long time ago. Hank Williams speculated Guam could capsize. Nope.

    Coral atolls drowning…nope. Per Charles Darwin in 1834.

  8. Weren’t the Pacific Islanders all meant to be dining underwater by now, I’m sure I saw something about this from the goose greens a decade or two back. The greens were investing in snorkels at the time.

  9. From the article: “Pacific Island nations must start drawing from traditional knowledge to adapt to climate change, rather than continue to rely on foreign funds.”

    That sounds good to me. Excellent advice. Much less money will be wasted on the Human-caused climate change speculation, in that case.

  10. Meanwhile…, the Maldives and other atolls are still above water and in some cases getting bigger.

  11. When recent studies have been telling us that Pacific atolls are growing in area and Australian BoM data shows that if anything, Pacific sea levels are FALLING, why don’t these “scientists” simply take a look at the data:

    http://www.bom.gov.au/ntc/IDO70000/IDO70000_60370_SLD.shtml

    My own experience of observing over 70 years of king tides and building sea front infrastructure shows current king tides to be up to 6 inches LOWER than the 1940s.

  12. “But as rising sea water continues to encroach on these low-lying Pacific islands,” The very premise of this article is wrong.

    Coral atolls keep pace with sea level rise. The would be 200 meters underwater otherwise due to the rapid sea level rise at the end of the ice age!

    Coral species like to be within a certain distance of the surface of the sea, and as the sea rises they grow, pulling nutrients out of the sea. Fish and wave action that brake up this coral create sand creating the lagoon and island inside the atoll.

    • Related to this comment could be to ask why the vast majority of these atolls are all very similar with respect to sea level. They all formed at different times but as Matthew says they stay in sync with the sea level. That’s Nature at work.

  13. I mean, even as we speak, TS Isaias is traveling up the east coast of the US delivering much-needed rainfall climate change, which will require climate adaptation and multi-$millions in climate costs.

  14. “Imagine this climate change scenario…. ” Yep.That’s what they do.All the time.

  15. “Dirak faluw (‘men’s house’) at Wanyaan Village on Yap (Micronesia) was. constructed by community labour using local-available materials. ”

    wow! really…. that’s soooo amazing, people living somewhere and using stuff around them to build stuff.

    These social science dick heads just make me want to vomit with their ideas of low expectations from “ethnic” types, I doubt our two esteemed scholars could whittle a tent peg, let alone build a structure to last several generations.

    I love the way they think their readers know nothing too, one minute they’re talking atolls sitting inches above the “encroaching sea”, the next we’re given a photo of a building that’s on an island of 100 km2 (38.7 sq mi) with an elevation of 178 m (584 ft)……… and conflate.

  16. Leaders of developing countries should anticipate this situation now, and reverse their growing dependence on outside assistance.

    Leaving aside the usual CAGW mishmash (with a side order of CV-19 to keep up with the times), I think I agree with the basic premise of the article. That is, don’t depend on foreign governments or NGOs from the other side of the planet to fix your problems for you.

  17. The islands are actually alive! They grow with sea level rise and they are broken up and reduced to sand by wave action when sealevel goes down in a glacial period. Drill any South Pacific Island (as was done prior to the US A-bomb test at Bikini Atoll) and at a depth of 120m you will enter volcanic rock after a continuous record of coral reef limestone.

    While you have the drill under contract, drill the Mississippi delta, the Ganges Delta, the Mekong … and you will go through 120m of clay-silt-sand into a gravel layer, that is formed by coarse detritus of a glacial period. With sealevel rise the delta rises and extends into the sea. With drop in sealevel, wave action breaks up and washes the clay delta back down to sealevel. For homework, DuckduckGo “how are river deltas formed” for the simple mechanism.

    When you think of the coral islands with sealevel rise, remember that SLR doesn’t make it less likely to sea whales!

  18. What bothers me is the assumption that people are better off living ‘traditional’ lives. All the things that prevent being at the mercy of the weather, the diseases that prevent you expecting all your children to survive, and the modern appliances that make life a lot easier. My grandmother spent half her life washing diapers and clothes in a tub with a washboard; she lost a baby to a respiratory infection; in the earlier part she carried water in buckets.

    ‘Traditional’ is code for most people living from hand to mouth on bits of land that they degrade; living in societies that practice various nasty practices that I do not want to elaborate lest it put me in moderation.

  19. “ Ten years from now, unprecedented rainfall is dumped on Australia’s east coast over a prolonged period. Several cities become flooded and remain so for weeks.
    In the aftermath, the Australian government scrambles to make recently flooded areas liveable once more. They build a series of massive coastal dikes – structures to prevent the rising sea from flooding populated areas.”

    Think about that for a moment, build a coastal dike to keep the sea from flooding the populated areas. How is that going to help with the flooding which was caused by RAINFALL, unprecedented or otherwise?
    If anything the coastal dikes will prevent the rainwater from draining out into the sea thereby extending/prolonging the flooding. Surely the Australian government would not be that stupid.
    But maybe the author of the article is??

    Rant off,
    Have a great day everyone!

  20. Well, they might start to sink if they overbuild resorts with all the wealth transfer as brick and mortar projects and facilities for climate conference (parties).

  21. “…We’ve researched climate change adaptation in the Pacific for more than 50 years…”

    Implies they’ve been researching since the 1960s. Oops. What’s he trying to say? That he and his co-author have 50 yrs of combined research experience? Or that they looked back at more than 50 years of data?

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