Youth are the future of climate resilience

Feb 11, 2018

Ms. Tanu Sumeo, recipient of a scholarship under the Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project

On International Day for Women and Girls in Science, let’s celebrate the pipeline of talent coming up through the ranks to build Pacific resilience.

By Yusuke Taishi, Regional Technical Advisor for Climate Change Adaptation, and Kate Jean Smith, Communications Specialist at UN Development Programme 

When the vulnerability of small island countries to climate change is reported in international media, it is often accompanied by images of houses and roads inundated with seawater, families standing among ruined homes, and children barefoot among wind-blown palm trees.

People are often portrayed as victims at the mercy of the elements. It can be an easy narrative to fall into - communicating climate change is complex and multifaceted. Yet it is far from the full picture. And it fails both the subjects of the stories and the readers. 

As well as addressing the impacts and causes of climate change, we need to look to the solutions. How are communities going to, not just adapt, but build their resilience? What does resilience even mean? And how do we do it?

Resilience means an ability to prepare for the worst and to bounce back faster, and stronger, after being hit by an external shock.  One of the keys to building it, and addressing the impacts of climate change, is ensuring countries themselves are leading in both developing and implementing the solutions.

This can be a challenge in small island developing states. Take an example of resilience building in coastal areas that are highly vulnerable to sea-level rise, storm surges and flooding. Building resilience in these areas requires not only coastal engineers, but also marine biologists, geologists, oceanographers, meteorologists and so on. Yet the size of a country dictates the breadth of technical expertise it can offer and it is not uncommon for a small island country’s government to have none of these professionals. In the absence of existing in-country expertise, international consultants are brought in to assess and present solutions.  Unsurprisingly, these solutions are often not fully “owned” by communities. 

Effective resilience-building in small island developing states must begin with strengthening nations’ ability to make decisions about their own future. And this means investing in the very people who will help shape those decisions.

Lifting up young Tuvaluans

The principle of capacity-building was front and center when, with the Government of Tuvalu, the UN Development Programme began co-developing a proposal for the Green Climate Fund, focused on coastal adaptation. 

The Government and the project team recognized that for transformational change to take place, investment in both short-term and long-term capacity-building was essential. Complementing the conventional approach of targeting government officers, there was a clear need to focus on building a pipeline of young Tuvaluans, ready to lead their countries in addressing the challenges ahead.

One of the components of the Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project (TCAP), launched late last year, is support to high school students to study a discipline relevant for coastal resilience-building. Under the project, up to six students will be funded to complete their studies abroad at a specialist university. 

The scholarship is not just a personal investment for a talented young person. The seven-year duration of TCAP allows the scholarship recipients to return home and work on the project directly. This means their skills and knowledge are directly fed back into the work being done. It also lays the foundation for some of those same students to move on to a master’s degree to become an expert in the topic, building the knowledge capital of their nation. 

The Government of Tuvalu recently announced two awardees for the 2018 scholarship programme, including a young woman, Ms. Tanu Sumeo (19 years old). Originally from Vaitupu and now a resident of Funafuti, Tanu has been selected as an eligible candidate to be sent to a geospatial science programme. 

Tanu has set her sights high. Asked what she wants to be after finishing her studies, she replied, “I want to be a permanent secretary.” Bright young women like Tanu are going to be among the technical experts and the decision-makers Tuvalu needs to protect its atolls and communities from the effects of climate change and sea level rise.

Looking to the future

Tuvalu is a Least Developed Country with considerable development challenges, including a small and fragile economy, geographical vulnerabilities and, financial and technical barriers. 

Yet it is also a country with a young and dynamic population, ready to take charge of their future. 

On International Day for Women and Girls in Science, let’s celebrate the pipeline of talent coming up through the ranks to build Pacific resilience.

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About the Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project

The Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project was one of the first Green Climate Fund-financed projects to launch in the Pacific. The project focuses on enhancing the resilience of coastal communities, as well as building the capacity of Tuvalu’s government and future young professionals to better respond to and protect against climate impacts. For more information, please visit http://www.adaptation-undp.org/projects/tuvalu-coastal-adaptation-project 

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