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Sea and Land-based Pollution Among Key Environment Threats to Caribbean Islands

Experts Call for Boost in Port Waste Handling Facilities and Improved Recycling Schemes

London/Nairobi, 6 January 2005 – Pollution from cruise ships, tankers and other vessels are among the rising threats to the health and wealth of the islands and low-lying countries of the Caribbean according to reports released today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The region, with around 50,000 ships visiting annually and 14.5 million tourists a year, has some of the most intensive maritime traffic in the world.

Other concerns center around the rising tide of household and industrial wastes contaminating the land, underground freshwater supplies and coastal waters. For example, only 13 per cent of the population of St Lucia is connected to the sewage system.

Dwindling quantities of freshwater for drinking and agriculture is a worry in many islands. Some countries in the eastern Caribbean, like Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados and St Kitts and Nevis, are already officially listed as “water scarce”.

Tourism in the form of luxury hotels and golf courses can intensify the problems unless carefully managed. Tourist resorts use on average five to ten times more water than similar residential areas in the Caribbean.

Climate change may, among its many potential impacts, aggravate water shortages. Experts are predicting that rainfall in the eastern Caribbean will decline by four per cent in the coming years unless drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions occur.

Global warming is also likely to affect agriculture in the region. Bananas, a key crop, are very thirsty plants and are prone to Black Sigatoka disease under dry conditions.

An estimated 70 per cent of the Caribbean’s population lives in cities, towns and villages located in vulnerable low-lying coastal areas threatened by rising sea levels and increasing frequency and intensity of storms and hurricanes. In 2004, several of the Caribbean SIDS experienced severe devastation, the loss of thousands of lives and millions of dollars in damages because of intense hurricanes.

Meanwhile, alien invasive species, transported to the region in ships’ ballast waters or in imports such as horticultural products, may also threaten the existence of native and often unique plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth.

The Dominican Republic, with an estimated 186 known alien species, has the highest number of invaders followed by Puerto Rico, 182; the Bahamas, 159; and Jamaica, 102.

Alien species may increase the number of native or endemic species already threatened with extinction as a result of habitat loss, deforestation and the clearance of land for farming and urbanization.

Currently Jamaica has, at 254, the highest number of threatened animal and plant species in the Caribbean followed by Cuba with 225.

These are among the findings from a series of reports released today by UNEP on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) around the world.

They come in advance of next week’s International Meeting to Review the Implementation of the Programme of Action for the SIDS taking place in Mauritius 10 to 14 January 2005.

The meeting is also known as the 10 year-review of the Barbados Programme of Action for Sustainable Development of SIDS.

The reports, an international effort involving scientists and collaborating centers across the world, cover the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean and Atlantic SIDS.

They have been produced by UNEP’s Division of Early Warning and Assessment as part of its Global Environment Outlook series and UNEP’s Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA) project based at the University of Kalmar, Sweden.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: “ Small island developing states are amongst the most environmentally and economically vulnerable nations in the world. Many are geographically remote and are dependent upon limited natural resources such as freshwater. Many are threatened by climate change in the guise of more extreme weather events and rising sea levels.”

He said the countries of the Caribbean and other small island developing states had been far from idle in the past 10 years.

Many are members of marine pollution conventions such as the International Convention for Prevention of Pollution from Ships or MARPOL and the UNEP-brokered Cartagena Convention on pollution in the wider Caribbean.

Most Caribbean SIDS have draft disaster management policies and programmes, early warning of disasters has been improved and several have developed better ways of handling solid wastes including improved collections and landfill sites.

Some countries, like Barbados, are using technologies such as reverse osmosis to harvest freshwater from seawater and others are turning to wind, solar and biomass-into-energy schemes to reduce their dependence on imports of crude oil.

“But we need much more action if we are to guarantee in the 21st century the environmental health of these islands and their rich and proud cultures. To make sound decisions, you need sound science. I sincerely hope that these new assessments of SIDS will help guide us all towards a more vigorous and focused effort to help these small nations and their peoples’ achieve a more sustainable future,” said Mr. Toepfer.

Maritime Traffic and Shipping

Shipping in the Caribbean is emerging as a key pollution issue affecting the coastlines of many islands on busy maritime routes, such as between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Other factors contributing to this high density of shipping are the presence of major oil producing and exporting countries within the wider Caribbean such as Colombia, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States and Venezuela.

Most of the islands in the region are also heavily dependent on oil imports themselves with 90 per cent of the energy used in the region derived from crude oil.

The region is also an increasingly popular cruise ship destination with 14.5 million cruise passengers visiting Caribbean ports in 2000, up by 47 per cent from 1995. Nearly 60 per cent of the world’s cruise ship passengers visit the Caribbean.

Shipping can damage the environment as a result of accidents in which oil and other wastes are released or as a result of irresponsible actions by ship owners and captains.

Apart from oil, other wastes including sewage, plastics, paper, glass, toxic substances such as the anti-fouling paint tributyltin (TBT) are entering the waters of the Caribbean with impacts on people, wildlife, coral reefs and scenic beauty that attract tourists in the first place.

Various global and regional conventions, many of which come under the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization (IMO), require the operators of ships to behave in a variety of environmentally friendly ways.

For example, the oil content of bilge waters and oily wastes discharged into the sea should not exceed 15 parts per million and should not leave an oil slick on the surface.

“However, large volumes of hydrocarbons and other substances are still being discharged from tankers and private vessels in the region. The Bahamas reported that many tankers and other ships have been known to clean out their bilges and tanks in their waters, releasing large quantities of oils, observed as a surface sheen,” says the GIWA Caribbean Islands report.

Various surveys indicate that the coastal sediments are suffering “lightly chronic oil pollution”. Hydrocarbon levels in Kingston Bay, Jamaica, are as high as 578 milligrammes per kilogramme of dry weight. The highest levels have been detected in Havana Bay, Cuba, at over 1,200 milligrammes per kilogramme of dry sediment.

High concentrations of tar balls, the result of oil spills and discharges, have been detected on the beaches of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Cayman Islands and Curacao as well as the windward beaches of Barbados, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago.

Cruise Ships

“The increase in the size of (cruise) ships is putting extra competitive pressure on welcoming harbours, obliging them to frequently upgrade their cruise terminal facilities and dredge harbour channels deeper and wider every year, “ say the reports.

“However, the main damage from the cruise line industry occurs due to operations at sea and more specifically to the dumping of toxic substances and waste near fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangroves,” they add.

It is estimated that a typical cruise ship with 3,000 passengers generates each day between 400 and 1,200 cubic metres of watery wastes including drainage from dishwashers, laundry, showers and washbasins along with grease, medical and dental wastes.

A estimated 70 litres of hazardous wastes, including photo processing chemicals, paints, solvents, laser printer cartridges, nickel cadmium batteries and dry cleaning fluids, are also generated each day.

“Many of the chemicals used by and disposed from cruise ships are often not found on other commercial vessels and therefore receive little regulatory attention,“ say the reports.

An average cruise ship produces an estimated 50 tonnes of solid waste a week and an estimated 900,000 tonnes of solid waste are being dumped in the world’s oceans annually of which almost a quarter is from cruise ships.

Action Needed

SIDS across the world are facing uncertain economic and environmental times as a result of shifts in demands for commodity crops such as sugar and bananas, sometimes rising populations with a thirst for modern, consumer living and emerging, cross-cutting threats, such as climate change.

Many islands are rising to the challenges acting within regional groupings to try and find ways to overcome their difficulties and joining in the myriad of multilateral agreements covering everything from hazardous waste and global warming to shipping, fishing and biodiversity.

A considerable number have shown remarkable success in striving toward the UN Millennium Development Goals in areas such as education, the provision of drinking water and health.

However, many of these achievements may be overwhelmed by continuing environmental decline. Most islands remain hampered by their remoteness, small GNP’s with little chance of economies of scale for tackling issues such as domestic and industrial waste and by the difficulties of accessing the technologies they need.

The global community must use the Mauritius Meeting to renew its commitment to these unique cultures and societies by increasing the resources available, by transferring appropriate technologies and building the capacities of governments, industries and civil society to overcome the shortfalls.

Climate change remains a key issue for many SIDS. Increased investment in vulnerability, early warning and adaptation schemes are urgently needed.

However, the best hope will be for the global community to make big reductions in greenhouse gases of 60 per cent or more. Many islands, like the Maldives, can only reduce vulnerability and adapt to rising sea levels for so long before they are partly or wholly submerged.

Note to Editors

Caribbean Environment Outlook is available at www.unep.org.

Caribbean Islands: GIWA Regional Assessment 4 is available at www.unep.org.

Caribbean Sea/Small Islands: GIWA Regional Assessment 3a is available at www.unep.org.

Details on the International Meeting to Review the Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) taking place in Mauritius 10 to 14 January 2005 are at http://www.un.org/smallislands2005/ and http://www.sidsmauritius2005.mu/.

For More Information Please Contact: Eric Falt, Spokesman/Director UNEP Division of Communications and Public Information on Tel: 254 20 623292, e-mail: eric.falt@unep.org or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, on Tel: 254 20 623084, Mobile: 254 (0) 733 632755, E-mail: nick.nuttall@unep.org

UNEP News Release 2005/04