Fiji, the Maldives, Saint Lucia… For many people, these names conjure up images of exotic beach vacations, lush greenery, and turquoise waters. But beyond their stunning natural beauty, these countries are also battling their fair share of economic and environmental issues, many of which are directly related to their status as Small Island Developing States (SIDS).
First recognized by the United Nations in 1992, SIDS are a group of 38 seemingly disparate countries located mostly across the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic, and the Caribbean. Although they are scattered around the world—sometimes thousands of miles apart—these island nations have a lot in common and face many similar challenges.
In particular, most of them have limited economic potential due to their modest size, small population, and lack of natural resources. Remoteness poses a major challenge as well, as many SIDS are located too far from major markets to participate fully in the global economy.
Another common factor is their exposure and vulnerability to natural disasters such as cyclones, floods, storm surges, and landslides, which tend to hit SIDS much more often than other countries. With most of the population and assets concentrated along the coastline at low elevation, any one of those events can quickly threaten human lives and wreak havoc on their economy. When Tropical Cyclone Pam struck the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu in 2015, the resulting damage and losses amounted to more than 64% of the country’s GDP.
Climate change is exacerbating the situation, bringing more frequent and intense weather events, higher temperatures, and rising sea levels—a phenomenon that jeopardizes the very existence of several SIDS.
While climate risk impacts almost all aspects of life in SIDS, transport is disproportionately affected, in part because the infrastructure in many places is located in disaster-prone areas right next to the sea. In the event of a disaster, damage to transport infrastructure can make up a large portion of overall disaster losses, as roads, ports, and runways typically rank among a country’s most valuable assets. In Dominica, for instance, transport infrastructure is valued at 82% of GDP.
“Transport disruptions have a ripple effect across the entire economy, can cut off access to essential services, and seriously impede disaster recovery efforts. This is especially true in SIDS, which have very few alternative roads or other transport options,” explained Guangzhe Chen, the World Bank’s Senior Director for Transport.