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FEATURE STORY June 11, 2019

In Small Island States, Resilient Transport is Providing a Lifeline Against Disasters


Conor Ashleigh/World Bank


  • Due to their size and location, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are particularly vulnerable to climate risk.
  • When disaster strikes, damage to transport systems typically makes up a large share of overall losses, and is often one of the main obstacles to recovery.
  • The World Bank is answering the call with unprecedented support to the transport sector in small island states. A total of eight transport projects have been approved in SIDS over the last year, all of which include a resilience component.

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.

"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."
Guangzhe Chen
Senior Director, Transport, World Bank

In a bid to enhance the overall climate resilience of SIDS, the World Bank has substantially increased assistance to the transport sector in many of these countries, with a clear focus on climate change adaptation. In fact, a record eight transport projects have been launched in SIDS over the last year—all of which have been designed with climate risk in mind.

“Climate change is putting a huge strain on our client countries and their transport systems. It’s a reality we simply cannot ignore. That’s why, if you look at our transport portfolio in the Pacific, there isn’t one project that does not include a resilience component,” said Almud Weitz, World Bank Practice Manager for Transport in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Supporting Pacific SIDS

Although, in many cases, resilience provisions are a component of broader-scope transport projects, there has been an increasing number of projects dedicated entirely to climate risk—reflecting the strategic importance of the resilience transport agenda. A good example is the Pacific Climate-Resilient Transport Program, a series of projects currently spanning a total of four countries: Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. More countries are expected to join the Program in a second phase.

“Despite many common vulnerabilities, Pacific SIDS have different infrastructure resilience profiles and priorities. The Pacific Climate-Resilient Transport Program is based on a common approach, but can be tailored to meet the specific needs of each country,” noted Senior Infrastructure Specialist Sean Michaels, who has been leading the program since its inception. “In all countries covered by the program, interventions include a combination of ‘hard’ infrastructure investments and ‘soft’ capacity building activities to help our clients effectively manage more resilient infrastructure.”

Infrastructure works may involve building supplementary roads so that key corridors can remain functional even if the main road is damaged, improving drainage, putting up retaining walls, installing nets to contain rockfall, and a myriad of other measures dictated by local circumstances.

Technical assistance efforts are just as critical: by strengthening institutions, mainstreaming resilience into infrastructure design standards and policy , and developing sectoral and spatial planning tools, the program is providing a major capacity boost that will help countries manage transport much more efficiently in the face of growing climate threats.

By their nature disasters are unpredictable, and although preparation is crucial, so is capacity to quickly respond to emergency needs and reconstruction. The program allows countries to reallocate project funds to support recovery operations. Known as a “contingent emergency response component,” this mechanism gives governments some much-needed financial leeway in the aftermath of a catastrophe.

Relying on a common framework across multiple countries has made it quicker and cheaper to carry out projects, and allows countries to leverage their limited resources as efficiently as possible. SIDS around the world are increasingly looking to work together—after all, when you’re small, your best bet is to find strength in numbers— and the model is well suited for replication across countries and sectors.

The momentum for ambitious and coordinated action is clearly growing. On the ground, SIDS are just as determined to overcome the odds. As climate leaders in the Pacific put it, “small island states are not drowning—they’re fighting.”


The activities described above are part of a broader effort across the World Bank to support climate resilience in Small Island Developing States: