Climate Change in Small Island Developing Countries

A NextGen Blog by Samantha Singh, Ryerson University

This is the last post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG posted student essays; sponsored a forum for our student contributors; and invited upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Samantha Singh is Trinidad and Tobago born and now lives in Toronto, Canada. She graduated from Ryerson University with a degree in Environmental and Urban Sustainability. As her passion for sustainability grows, she increasingly believes in the importance of education and relaying her knowledge to those with similar interests.


According to the United Nations, Small Island Developing States [hereafter, SIDS] are a distinct group of states that face unique social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities due to their remote geography.1 SIDSare located within three geographical locations: the Caribbean Sea; the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian Oceans; and South China Sea. 

SIDS make up less than 1% of the world’s population; however, they contribute the least to greenhouse gases and climate change. Additionally, SIDS are the most vulnerable to greenhouse gas effects.2 SIDS economies, population numbers and distance from larger countries hinder their potential for sustainable development. These disadvantages also allow for a greater risk of climate change catastrophes like rising sea levels, decreased precipitation and increased number and intensity of natural disasters which inherently affect freshwater resources and quality throughout SIDS. Small islands have limited options when developing freshwater resources and facing the complexities that come with the variability and inconsistencies due to climate change.3

Climate Change and Water-Related Issues

Sea Level Rise

Sea level rise, one of the prevalent effects of climate change, can go unnoticed since it has a slow onset and yet is a very long-lasting event. Sea level rise happens through increasing temperatures and ice mass loss.4 It is said that the average rate of sea level rise is estimated to be 0.77 millimeters (mm) per year in the Pacific, 1 mm in the Caribbean, and 1.5 mm in the Indian Ocean.5 Sea level rise is detrimental specifically to SIDS that are flatter and already below sea level. Extreme sea level events, such as storm surges and flooding, can cause erosion, sedimentation and increased salinization of coastal aquifers leading to water insecurity.6 For low-lying Pacific islands and atolls, coastal aquifers are the only source of freshwater supply. Unfortunately, sea-level rise has led to decreased water quality of this critical freshwater supply.7

Sea Level Rise in SIDS: “Sea levels could rise up to 20 feet: ‘An Inconvenient Truth’” by nattu via Creative Commons8


With climate change, the changes in levels of precipitation can vary. Some places will experience increases in precipitation, while others show decreases in precipitation. SIDS large extreme weather risks can lead to tropical storms, cyclones and drought. The need for the right balance of water is crucial for the survival of SIDS. Some SIDS receive up to 25% of their annual freshwater supply during tropical cyclones. If changes in the cyclonic cycle cause a decrease in precipitation, then SIDS such as Puerto Rico and Jamaica might also experience freshwater shortages.9

With a possible 2°C increase in global warming, it is projected that the average intensity of tropical cyclones will increase – along with amplified magnitudes of storm surge and precipitation – resulting in higher proportions of Category 4 and 5 tropical cyclones.10 These varying weather trends can stress freshwater supplies, leaving SIDS vulnerable to a severe scarcity of clean water. For many SIDS, reliable, safe, sustainable and affordable access to potable water remains critical. Typical sources of potable water for SIDS communities include groundwater and surface water, which are commonly recharged during annual wet seasons.11 Increased climate-change-induced storm frequency and severity would make these atolls inhabitable due to infrastructure damage and loss of freshwater aquifers.12

Natural Disasters

Climate change has exacerbated natural disasters over the ‘normal’ limit. According to OXFAM International, climate-related disasters have tripled in the last 30 years.13 This includes heat waves, hurricanes, forest fires, earthquakes and drought. Heat waves caused by rising average global temperatures are one of the most direct indicators of climate change. 

As heat-trapping emissions become more concentrated in the atmosphere and temperatures rise, extreme heat waves are expected to become longer, more frequent and more severe.14  Another threat is hurricanes, that feed on the energy that comes from warmer water since climate change is causing ocean temperatures to increase. Wind damage from hurricanes increases exponentially, so even a seemingly small boost in strength can dramatically increase damage.15 SIDS are especially vulnerable to the effects of these natural disasters, since storms can damage their sewer and related water systems, and pollute both surface and groundwater resources.16 

Drought conditions in the Marshall Islands: “Protecting drinking water from drought and sea level rise” by UN Development Programme, via Creative Commons17 

Examples of SIDS 

Trinidad and Tobago 

Trinidad and Tobago are situated in the southern part of the West Indies chain in the Caribbean Sea. SIDS, like Trinidad and Tobago, have experienced long dry spells and droughts throughout the years. Between 2001 and 2010, the four main reservoirs in Trinidad and Tobago recorded lower-than-average reservoir levels. Projections suggest declines in rainfall and increases in temperature over the next several decades, which implies further water stress for both islands.18

Aquifers in Trinidad and Tobago are affected by salt water intrusion due to sea level rise. Salinization is a slow onset event impacting coastal freshwater supplies that can render water unsuitable for agricultural and urban usage. Sea level rise, storms and changes to precipitation from changes in regional climate regimes can increase salinization and threaten these sources, further stressing freshwater availability.19 According to the local government the threat of sea level rise due to global warming is expected to cause interference between freshwater and brackish water as rising waters move inland. This will subsequently impact the availability and quality of groundwater and surface water systems, as well as increase the cost of treatment.20 

The importance of fresh water in Trinidad and Tobago along with many other SIDS, is the of use river water for crop irrigation and the dry spells that are becoming more intense during January to May have left farmers at a loss. Climate change is recognized as one of the most important factors affecting agriculture water supply and food security in SIDS.21 On many small islands, freshwater stress is expected to occur because of imbalanced water availability due to climate change. SIDS are particularly at risk due to the large proportion of the population whose livelihoods are dependent on agricultural production. The production of these crops is adversely affected by hurricanes, floods, and droughts.22

The issue most SIDS face is a lack of funding and limited government resources. For example, the Trinidad and Tobago ‘Disaster Measures Act’ is the primary piece of legislation governing disaster management. However, it is currently 42 years old and thus does not address disaster mitigation for current or future risks nor touch on the allocation of finances to disaster preparedness. There is also low adherence to building and planning regulations in Trinidad and Tobago, which leads to unplanned development in hazard-prone areas.23


Singapore is an island in South-east Asia just below Malaysia. Singapore like many other SIDS, is threatened by rising sea levels, unpredictable weather and rising temperatures. However, Singapore’s government has been focused on resilience, rather than a resistance approach to combating all threatening issues including climate change.24

Since Singapore’s independence in the 1960s, it has become a world leader in water management, primarily because of its location as a densely populated city-state on an island lacking freshwater lakes. Due to the work of their public utility agencies, the city currently receives more than half its water supply from sources of rainwater collection (20%), recycled water (30%) and desalination (10%).25 Singapore’s long-term plan is to become entirely self-sufficient in water.

Singapore is home to the world’s largest indoor waterfall: “Cloud Forest, Gardens by the Bay Singapore” by LezlieN via Creative Commons26

Singapore’s Assistant Director of its National Security Coordination Secretariat, Charles Ng stated that Singapore’s “whole of government” approach supports the government’s lead in formulating and implementing its resilience strategy against conventional and non-conventional threats endangering the country’s national security.27 He also mentioned that there is a need to shift the strategy to be more inclusive of 21st-century threats and the adoption of a ‘whole society’ or bottom-up approach. Thus, the Singaporean government is taking a more holistic approach to communicating with stakeholders such as local communities, the media, religious organizations and NGOs. All in all, their governance and outlook towards climate change is much more advanced and thus is an example of how to implement policies and change.


Tonga is an archipelago consisting of four clusters of islands northeast of Australia. The Kingdom of Tonga island is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and natural hazards. Its geographical location, geological composition and socioeconomic features are responsible for its susceptibility to these impacts that affect the environment, the people of Tonga and their livelihoods. Tonga is threatened by rising sea levels, warming seas, and increasingly extreme rainfalls. The sea level has risen by about 6 mms. per year, well above the global average and extreme rainfall is expected to occur with greater frequency and intensity.28 

Intense droughts during the dry season contribute to the depletion of potable water. Tonga’s two main sources of freshwater are stored rainwater and freshwater found in highly porous limestone substrate. Groundwater is supplemented by rainwater, which is collected and piped to rainwater storage from permanent roofing on houses and other buildings. Limited fresh surface water is found in the island of ‘Eua and in a few salty lakes on the islands of Tofua and Niuafo’ou, although the quantity can be depleted during drought periods. Recently, desalinated water has been introduced to supplement the water supply on the island of Nomuka. The effort to also do so on Ha’apai was not successful due to maintenance problems.29

Conclusion: Water Management and Sustainable Development

In studying SIDS and climate change, it is clear they all face similar problems, as well as a lack of governance and economic stability. Protecting and efficiently dealing with climate change is important if SIDS are to have appropriate water management and sustainable development plans. However proper water management takes resources and an ability to conduct and obtain detailed research.30 Not only is the regulation of waste disposal difficult to achieve, but SIDS also face problems in installing sewage and sewage-treatment infrastructure. Steep, unstable terrain on these volcanic islands makes any construction and maintenance of sewage mains difficult.31

In terms of climate-change risk assessment for SIDS today, there is a need for political support and active community involvement. Yet, traditional risk assessment methods have merely considered hazards individually, which leads to potential underestimation of risks, insufficient adaptation and increases in losses and infrastructure damage.32 

As in Trinidad and Tobago, and Tonga, the lack of funding and government initiatives are the main setbacks to the progress in establishing sustainable development. SIDS such as Singapore are now successfully using bottom-up and ecosystem-based approaches to create solutions to climate-based issues. These nature-based solutions and ecosystem-based adaptations have demonstrated they can protect communities and infrastructure from the impacts of climate change while also providing several co-benefits.33

Featured Image (Top) © Alison M. Jones


1.  “About Small Island Developing States”. United Nations. 2022. Accessed 4/22/2022 by S.S. https://www.un.org/ohrlls/content/about-small-island-developing-states#:~:text=Small%20Island%20Developing%20States%20(SIDS,social%2C%20economic%20and%20environmental%20vulnerabilities.

2.  Wong, Poh Poh. “Small island developing states”. John Wiley & Sons. Janurary/Feburary 2022. Accessed 4/22/2022 by S.S. https://wires.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/wcc.84

3.  “Small Island Developing States (SIDS)”. UNESCO-IHP Groundwater Portal. Accessed 4/22/2022 by S.S. https://groundwaterportal.net/index.php/focal-area/small-island-developing-states-sids

4.  See Endtnote 2

5.  See Endnote 1

6.  See Endnote 2

7.  Adelle Thomas, April Baptiste, Rosanne Martyr-Koller, Patrick Pringle, Kevon Rhiney. “Climate Change and Small Island Developing States”. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 2020 45:1, 1-27. Accessed 5/1/2022 by S.S. https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-environ-012320-083355#aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuYW5udWFscmV2aWV3cy5vcmcvZG9pL3BkZi8xMC4xMTQ2L2FubnVyZXYtZW52aXJvbi0wMTIzMjAtMDgzMzU1QEBAMA==

8.  “Sea levels could rise up to 20 feet: ‘An Inconvenient Truth’” by nattu is licensed under CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/?ref=openverse.

9.   IIan Kelman & Jennifer J. West. “Climate Change and Small Island Developing States: A Critical Review”. Ecological and Environmental Anthropology. 2009. 5:1. Accessed 5/1/2022 by S.S. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

10.  See Endnote 7

11.  See Endnote 7

12.  See Endnote 7

13.  “5 Natural Disasters That Beg for Climate Action” OXFAM International. 2022. Accessed 5/3/2022 by S.S. https://www.oxfam.org/en/5-natural-disasters-beg-climate-action

14.  Shannon Heyck-Williams. “Climate Change, Natural Disasters, and Wildlife”. National Wildlife Federation. 2019. Accessed 5/3/2022 by S.S. https://www.nwf.org/-/media/Documents/PDFs/Environmental-Threats/Climate-Change-Natural-Disasters-fact-sheet.ashx

15.  See Endnote 14

16.   “Freshwater Resources in Small Island Developing States” UNEP Islands. 1998. Accessed 5/1/2022 by S.S. http://islands.unep.ch/dd98-7a3.htm

17.  “Marshall Islands: Protecting drinking water from drought and sea level rise” by United Nations Development Programme is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/jp/?ref=openverse.

18.  “National Integrated Water Resources Management Policy”. Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. 2016. Accessed 5/5/2022 by S.S. https://www.mpu.gov.tt/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Final-Draft-NIWRMP.pdf

19.  See Endote 2

20.  See Endnote 18

21.  See Endnote 7

22.  See Endnote 7

23.  USAID. “Trinidad and Tobago Resilience Profile”. 2021. Accessed 5/5/2022 by S.S. https://www.climatelinks.org/sites/default/files/asset/document/2021-09/Trinidad%20and%20Tobago.May_.2021.Final_.pdf

24.  Md Saidul Islam & Quek Ri An. “Climate Change and Urban Resilience: The Singapore Story”  May 2014. Accessed 5/6/2022 by S.S. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Md-Islam-67/publication/285084218_Climate_Change_and_Urban_Resilience_The_Singapore_Story/links/56935d2008aec14fa55dff86/Climate-Change-and-Urban-Resilience-The-Singapore-Story.pdf

25.  WWF. “Singapore Water Management”. March 2012. Accessed 5/6/2022 by S.S. https://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/?204587/Singapore-water-management

26.  “Cloud Foreset, Gardens by the Bay Singapore” by LezlieN is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/jp/?ref=openverse.

27.  See Endnote 24

28.  “Tonga”. Current Forecast: Tonga and a Changing Climate. COP23 Fiji. Accessed 5/6/2022 by S.S. https://cop23.com.fj/tonga/

29.  The Kingdom of Tonga. “Second National Communication”. 2012. Accessed 5/6/2022 by S.S  https://www.adaptation-undp.org/sites/default/files/downloads/tongas_ii_nc_2012.pdf

30.  See Endnote 16

31.  See Endnote 7

32.  See Endnote 2

33.  See Endnote 2

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