27 May, 2020

Facing Covid and climate, Pacific island capacity stretched

Patrick Pringle

As the economic impacts of COVID-19 on Pacific Small Island Developing States stretch into 2020, there is a real risk that longer-term strategic action on climate change will take a back seat, and countries struggling to keep up with rising tides risk losing further ground.
COVID-19 will disrupt global food supply and prices, severely affecting atolls with limited land.

Like many people, the last few weeks I have resorted to Skype calls and Zoom meetings to catch up with colleagues in Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS) on a range of climate change activities; funding proposals, getting new projects started and requests for support from the IMPACT project, which I currently manage in the region.

This is not solely the result of our new COVID-19 world, it is the reality of working in a geographically vast region where travel from my home base in Samoa to neighbouring countries can take days at the best of times. However, in trying to meet my colleagues virtually, a common theme emerged: capacity.

Wearing many hats

“I’m really sorry, I’m in Covid emergency planning meetings this week” said one. “I need approval from the CEO but he’s dealing with post-cyclone recovery and the Covid committee” apologised another, and so on.

Understanding their predicament, of course I postponed our meetings; these friends and colleagues are stretched and working long hours. But what happens, if as looks likely, this pandemic continues?

While talk of green stimulus packages grows, there has been little discussion of one of the region’s major challenges in responding to both climate change and COVID-19: capacity. It has long been acknowledged that capacity for dealing with climate change is a major constraint for small islands and Least Developed Countries in normal times, so how might capacity for climate change action be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

In the Pacific, nearly everyone wears multiple hats, and this is certainly the case with climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction and emergency response and conventional development projects – which have all become a swirling mass of connected issues and interchangeable responsibilities.

This is one of the reasons some Pacific nations have pragmatically chosen to combine disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation in regional and national policy frameworks and in the structure of their Ministries and Departments. Even with this mainstreaming, resources can only be spread so far before difficult choices have to be made. Quite understandably, immediate disaster and emergency response is prioritised, and the rapid and strong efforts by many Pacific nations are the reason that two thirds of the countries with no COVID-19 cases are from our region.

Hard to get things done in a sickened country

Tropical Cyclone Harold, which recently hit the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga, showed that natural disasters do not form an orderly queue behind COVID-19; they hit harder and become a threat multiplier. The risk of disease transmission rises as people pack into emergency shelters, and hygiene is hard to maintain where access to potable water is limited. Disaster response efforts are also hampered by travel restrictions, contamination fears and pressures for donors to prioritise their own Covid-19 related emergencies.

At a more mundane level, the lockdowns enforced in many countries makes communication with donors, colleagues and external experts difficult. Internet connections are generally poor across the region and online meetings are forever disrupted by the automated voice saying that as x or y “has left the meeting” due to an unreliable connection. It is an inconvenience we are somewhat used to but in the long run it will impact significantly on the effectiveness of communication and on the delivery of climate change projects in a region where relationships are critical. Climate change projects continue to spend resources on staff, who can’t visit the field to deliver activities and eventually something must give: more money or less delivery.

Depressingly, there is an increasing sense that a vaccine, at some point in 2021, is the only way out of this pandemic and that if Pacific nations open their borders, transmission of the virus to their often-vulnerable populations is almost inevitable. Both assumptions, if correct, would have even greater capacity implications. Keeping borders shut will further constrain the small and often narrow economic base of many SIDS, eventually reducing tax income with implications for national budgets and resources for climate change, particularly so for those highly dependent on tourism.

While the HIV/AIDS pandemic is quite different from COVID-19, there are lessons to learn. If COVID-19 reaches its tentacles more deeply into the Pacific, its erosive impact upon the capacity of national and regional institutions cannot be underestimated. A study of HIV/AIDS, Climate Change and Disaster Management in Malawi, undertaken at the same time I was working in Southern Africa, highlighted how a pandemic can lead to staff attrition, high vacancy rates, absenteeism, increased workload, which are worsened by financial pressures heightened by the pandemic; it becomes a vicious cycle. In my experience, a sickened country can be a hard place to get even simple things done.

So, in already capacity-constrained countries, how can we ensure the current pandemic does not further diminish the capacity to address climate change?

Assess, update and plan

We need to map feedback loops and understand how the socio-economic fallout of COVID-19 might impact on climate action and resilience on a range of scales. For example, how will atoll nations with limited productive land be affected by changes in global food supplies and prices, and how will this impact on the vulnerability of communities? How might a longer-term downturn in tourism impact on coastal zone management or the exploitation of local natural resources? These feedbacks need to be considered at a systems level; what are the multiple ways in which COVID-19 might impact on resilience and our ability to respond to climate change? With this knowledge we can better deploy existing expertise and seek additional resources.

Now is also the time to update vulnerability assessments, and make best use of existing data, to understand how communities and institutions are likely to cope with disasters in the time of COVID-19. This information will be essential as the Pacific begins planning for the 2020/21 cyclone season. Such assessments may not be perfect given the current limitations we are working under, but the rapidly changing context for adaptation and disaster risk reduction needs to be understood, even if very roughly.

For SIDS without cases of COVID-19 but feeling the economic fever of its impacts, economic stimulus packages could relatively easily incorporate resilience-building activities such as mangrove replanting which would bring employment opportunities and economic benefits to local communities, however these require capacity to plan and implement.

In the short term, the lockdown can be an opportunity for contingency planning and to get funding proposals over the line, these resources will be desperately needed in the near future and can help fill inevitable capacity gaps. In this regard, SPREP and Climate Analytics are working with a number of SIDS to get GCF National Adaptation Planning proposals submitted so that when countries open up again projects can start promptly.

The planning of big ticket projects should not be forgotten at this time, as ambitious projects which can help deliver Paris Agreement targets and enhance resilience are as relevant as ever. Indeed, the development buzz word for 2021 may well be ‘shovel ready’ as donors look for investments to stimulate economic recovery, and SIDS will need to place themselves at the front of the queue. If not carefully planned, such an approach comes with risks: we should not be building seawalls as job creation projects, but only if they are the most appropriate adaptation response. This means investing in, and listening to, regional and local climate change experts and affected communities.

Reflect and do things differently

In seems inevitable that the COVID-19 pandemic will slow the global response to climate change, especially in capacity-constrained SIDS. Yet disruptive change brings an opportunity to reflect and do things differently. Green COVID-19 recovery strategies, with clear plans for prompt implementation, are required at regional and national level and can ensure we are responding to the current health disaster and others that loom as a result of manmade climate change.

The mantra that “things will never be the same again” is being increasingly echoed in the media and there is a genuine opportunity for a crisis to trigger transformative action. To make this happen, we need to be radical and ambitious in our recovery plans, aligning economic stimulus initiatives to low carbon growth and improved resilience in SIDS. This alignment should help prevent a loss of capacity through improved coordination to ensure that Government officials are not pulled in multiple directions. It will require inventive and flexible approaches from donors; rather than adding to the burden of rules and reporting, post-COVID-19 support needs to make use of what is already there.

Essentially, it will require an injection of expertise and human resources – capacity in other words – through capacity building or supplementation. To ensure these plans are locally relevant and effective it is vital that we value the relatively small group of skilled of climate change professionals within Pacific SIDS and resource them sufficiently. For donors, regional organisations and PSIDS the challenge is to design and deliver innovative recovery plans which set Pacific nations on ambitious low-carbon resilient pathways. In responding to climate change and COVID-19, SIDS will require additional finance, but for it to be used effectively capacity will be king.

More in the series of blogs on coronavirus pandemic impacts on climate-vulnerable countries:

COVID-19 another shock for vulnerable countries facing multiple crises by Manjeet Dhakal.

Coronavirus underscores small islands climate vulnerability by Adelle Thomas

Header image: The coronavirus crisis has the potential to affect global food supply and prices, with severe implications for atoll nations with limited productive land. ©Petra Bensted, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)