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8 June marks the UN World Oceans Day. Since 2008, the world has celebrated this observance to raise awareness on the ocean’s role and driving global systems that make the Earth habitable for humankind. Covering three-quarters of the earth’s surface, containing 97 percent of the earth’s water, and representing 99 percent of the living space on the planet by volume, the oceans provide and regulate our rainwater, drinking water, weather, climate, coastlines, 15 percent of our food, and even the oxygen in the air we breathe.  

Did you know? 

  • The ocean produces at least 50 percent of the planet’s oxygen.

  • Open ocean sites show current levels of acidity have increased by 26 percent since the start of the Industrial Revolution [1].

  • Just five percent of Earth's oceans have been explored and charted. The rest remains mostly undiscovered and unseen by humans.

  • According to the World Register of Marine Species [2] - there are now 240,470 accepted species, but this is believed to be just a small proportion of the species that exist, with new marine life being discovered every day.

More than three billion people rely on the ocean for their livelihoods, the vast majority in developing countries. This is why this year’s World Oceans Day’s theme is “The Ocean: Life and Livelihoods” – to underscore the importance of oceans for the cultural life and economic survival of communities around the world.

The oceans and their climate-security challenges in the Pacific

The Pacific Ocean is home to some of the most extensive coral reefs in the world, unique biodiversity, landscapes and geography, cultures and languages. Scattered throughout the ocean are 14 geographically and culturally diverse independent SIDS with a combined population of about 10 million.

Did you know?

  • Almost 98 percent of the Pacific region is ocean.

  • With 25,000 islands lying within it, the Pacific Ocean has more islands than anywhere else on the planet.

  • The Pacific is wider than the moon. At its widest point, from Indonesia all the way to Colombia, the Pacific Ocean expansion is 12,300 miles across, which is more than five times the diameter of the moon.

But how are the oceans connected to the stability and security dynamics in the Pacific?

Rising sea level

Sea-level rise has various impacts that affect coastal communities in the Pacific. Firstly, coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion negatively impact coastal communities and areas crucial for food production making land unproductive, thus affecting food and water security. 

The region is suffering irreversible food source degradation where between 70-90% of Pacific populations access healthy foods and livelihoods. Diminishing freshwater supplies for low-lying atolls from inundation droughts and saltwater intrusion are affecting key food crops. As a result, there is an increasing dependency on low nutritional imports as alternatives in a region producing some of the highest non-communicable disease (NDC) rates in the world (70-75% of deaths due to NDCs) [3] and 1 in 3 children suffer from stunting as a result of malnutrition [4].

Secondly, as rising seas encroach on coastlines, all Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) are at risk of losing land and a contraction of their exclusive economic zone (EEZs). The location of borders at sea are defined by the coastline, so inundating the coast could lead to loss of land territory as well as disputes on shifting maritime zone boundaries which are critical for national security, as well as natural resource management. 

Thirdly, while sea level rise is threatening the very existence of Pacific SIDS, its effects will affect coastal communities long before lands disappear beneath the ocean. As lands will become unproductive due to saltwater intrusion, erosion, and reef degradation, thousands of people will be forced to migrate in the absence of ambitious adaptation actions.

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Higher oceans temperature

The world’s oceans reached their hottest level in recorded history in 2020, supercharging the extreme weather events and contributing to the climate emergency [5]. 

By permanently degrading an enormous proportion of coral reefs and ecosystems that are critical for the Pacific regional economy and people’s livelihoods, ocean temperatures are threatening marine ecosystems and food security. 

For example, the Pacific Ocean is home to over half the world’s tuna stocks, and several Pacific SIDS are economically extraordinarily dependent on tuna fishing.

Additionally, the degradation of coastal and marine ecosystems deriving by increased oceans’ temperature is threatening the very existence of 90 percent of corals, which decline will have significant effects on ocean productivity, its’ biodiversity and the marketability of the Pacific’s essential and growing tourism industry. 

©Storyblocks (UNDP license)


Acidification

Due to global warming, oceans now also contain less oxygen, while acidity has increased by over 25 percent since pre-industrial times [6]. 

Due to acidification, the deteriorating condition of marine ecosystems will have a wide range of consequences for human societies, including substantial revenue declines and loss of employment and livelihoods.

For example, ocean acidification is affecting important marine species, thus undermining coastal communities’ livelihoods and food security. Moreover, degraded marine ecosystems, especially coral reefs, could lose their function of protecting shorelines from the destructive impact of storm surges and cyclones.

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Climate-related disasters

Due to their location and characteristics, the Pacific SIDS are the most highly exposed countries in the world to natural disasters (tropical cyclones, droughts, floods, etc.). In the last three years, single tropical cyclone events have caused losses of up to 64 percent of Gross Domestic Product for some Pacific Island nations, such as Tropical Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu and Tropical Cyclone Winston in Fiji. 

Global warming, warmer ocean temperatures and rising sea levels are causing an increase in both the intensity and frequency of natural hazards. In the Pacific, the vulnerability of SIDS has increased while their capacity to cope has not, making the impact of natural disasters more severe on states and communities.

© UNDP Pacific


Overfishing

Arguably one of the most severe problems our oceans face today, overfishing is negatively impacting entire ecosystems. When too many fish are taken out of the ocean, it creates an ecosystem imbalance that can erode the food web and lead to a loss of other important marine life. 

Fish ranks as one of the most highly traded food commodities and fuels a $362 billion global industry [7]. Millions of people, mainly in developing Small Islands Developing States, depending on the fishing industry for their livelihood. When fish disappear, so do jobs and coastal economies. 

For this reason, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) need to be effectively managed and well-resourced and regulations need to be put in place to reduce overfishing and marine pollution.

© UNDP Pacific


UNDP commitment in addressing climate security in the Pacific

To address the above-mentioned ocean-driven and climate security challenges in the Pacific, the UN Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund (PBF)-funded Climate Security in the Pacific project is taking decisive climate actions to build resilience and secure a sustainable future. 

Implemented by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the initiative is focusing on empowering low-lying atoll nations, in particular Tuvalu, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Kiribati. Working in close partnership with the Governments of the three countries and regional actors, it helps set the direction to manage climate-related security risks and strengthen the capacities of Pacific SIDS, supporting the coastal and indigenous communities that depends on the ocean and its ecosystem services, including fisheries, recreation, tourism, and transport sectors. 

©Storyblocks (UNDP license)


As the former Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor stated, “the ocean requires global governance and understanding to ensure its long-term health and wellbeing and prosperity for all” [8]. 

We need collaborative action to improve and understand ocean-driven security challenges, promote sustainable development and management practices, and maintain good ocean health, which are essential for us and the wellbeing of our planet.

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Footnotes

[1] UN World Oceans Day.  
[2] World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS)
[3] Pacific Islands: Non-Communicable Disease Roadmap, World Bank, 2014.
[4] The State of the World’s Children, UNICEF, 2019.
[5] UN Secretary-General’s message for World Oceans Day 2021.
[6] Climate, Ocean and Security, Stockholm Climate Security Hub, 2021.
[7] “What is overfishing?”, WWF, 2021.
[8] Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Ocean Management & Conservation.  

 

For more information: 

Martin F. Ras, Project Manager - Climate Security Project, UNDP Pacific Office, Fiji | Email: martin.ras@undp.org

Giulio Fabris, Communication and Advocacy Specialist - Climate Security Project, UNDP Pacific Office, Fiji | Email: giulio.fabris@undp.org

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