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Environmental sustainability

Environmental Sustainability

Sustaining the viability of island environments is about survival.

Over the hundreds and thousands of years people have lived on Pacific islands, their ability to sustain human livelihoods has been repeatedly challenged by extreme events (like tropical cyclones, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions) and longer-term changes in key parameters (like temperature, rainfall, sea level).

Understanding how Pacific Island peoples overcame these challenges, sustaining, restoring or reconfiguring their livelihoods, is hugely important to understand when we consider how these livelihoods might be sustained over the next few decades as climate changes at unprecedented rates. It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of the challenge … but ACPIR researchers acknowledge the importance of combining Pacific ways of coping with those which science considers optimal. We develop and apply solutions in collaboration with Pacific communities because they must survive.

Key researchers

Fijian people run to get shelter during a Tropical Cyclone

Research projects

Cattle in farmland on Malakula (Wikimedia Commons)
Traditional practice and national sustainability in Vanuatu


National (top-down) policy in Pacific Island Countries often fails to be taken up at community level. This research found that national sustainability policy had had little impact on agricultural practice in the Southwest Bay region of Malakula Island in Vanuatu. Yet it was also found that traditional practices, which were widespread in the area, had goals that paralleled those of national policy.

This research described three such practices. The sengtau system ensures all clan members benefit from the use of clan lands, a system currently threatened by a shift from subsistence agriculture to cash cropping. A hybrid land-lease system involves leasing part of clan lands for commercial kava production, a situation concerning some who see it as a betrayal of customary practice. The use of taboo/closure (noho) of fishing grounds to allow regeneration of seafood capacity appears driven by dietary change and cash availability. We conclude that traditional practice should be foregrounded in the drive for sustainability in Pacific nations.

Authors: Jimmy Rantes, Professor Patrick Nunn, Dr Cherise Addinsall

Reference: Rantes, J., Nunn, P.D. and Addinsall, C. 2021. Sustainable development at the policy-practice nexus: insights from South West Bay, Malakula Island, Vanuatu. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. DOI:10.1080/21683565.2021.1979706.

At Navunievu Village (Bua, Fiji), two seawalls – both now collapsed – have been built to try and protect the community from the rising sea level
Why Pacific people should stop building seawalls


The coasts of Pacific Island countries are littered with the remains of degraded, collapsed and irreparable seawalls, often built at great cost (relative to people’s cash incomes) and opened with great fanfare. Few seawalls last because they are inadequately designed or extensive, because they become undermined by wave scour and/or overtopped by waves during storms. Seawalls represent a short-term fix to a long-term environmental stressor and, although they may appear intuitive solutions, they waste money and resources.

Sea level in the central Pacific Islands is currently rising about 4 mm/year; in parts of Solomon Islands and Micronesia, rates as high as 10-12 mm/year have been recorded. The latest IPCC report (AR6) suggests sea level might be almost a metre higher by the end of this century. With this in mind, it is better for coastal communities wishing to implement short-term (stopgap) adaptation to invest in nature-based solutions (like mangrove replanting). Yet in the longer-term, upslope or even off-island relocation is unavoidable.

Authors: Professor Patrick Nunn, Dr Carola Klöck, Professor Virginie Duvat

Reference: Nunn, P.D., Klöck, C. and Duvat, V. 2021. Seawalls as maladaptations along island coasts. Ocean and Coastal Management, 205: 105554.

Aerial view of densely-populated Majuro Atoll, Marshall Islands (Wikimedia Commons)
Future habitability of (low) atoll islands


Many people in Pacific nations like Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu live today on islands that rise no more than two metres above average sea level. Being made largely from reef-derived sands and gravels, these atoll islands are often considered particularly vulnerable to climate-driven sea-level rise. In this study, we look at cumulative risk to atoll islands with reference to five Habitability Pillars (Land, Freshwater supply, Food supply, Settlements and infrastructure, and Economic activities). Risk is assessed using various future climate scenarios.

Risks will be highest in the Western Pacific which will experience increased island destabilization together with a high threat to freshwater, and decreased land-based and marine food supply from reef-dependent fish and tuna and tuna-like resources. Risk accumulation will occur at a lower rate in the Central Pacific (lower pressure on land, with more limited cascading effects on other Habitability Pillars. Risk levels will vary significantly between urban islands, depending on geomorphology and local shoreline disturbances. Rural islands will experience less contrasting risk levels, but higher risks than urban islands in the second half of the century.

Authors: Professor Virginie Duvat, Professor Patrick Nunn + 11 others

Reference: Duvat, V.K.E., Magnan, A.K., Perry, C.T., Spencer, T., Bell, J.D., Wabnitz, C., Webb, A.P., White, I., McInnes, K.L., Gattuso, J-P., Graham, N.A.J., Nunn, P.D. and Le Cozannet, G. 2021. Risks to future atoll habitability from climate-driven environmental changes. WIREs Climate Change, e700.

Community-maintained wetland taro plantation, Ngariy Village, Yap Proper, Federated States of Micronesia (Photo: Roselyn Kumar)
Community-maintained wetland taro plantation, Ngariy Village, Yap Proper, Federated States of Micronesia
Cashless adaptation to combat climate change


Today in the Pacific Islands, climate-change adaptation is commonly linked to the availability of cash. Where no money is forthcoming, adaptation cannot happen. But even half a century ago (and more), adaptation was undertaken by Pacific Island communities without cash, people contributing labour free and using freely-available local materials or others paid for through barter. Sustainable futures for people in these communities lie in a return to cashless adaptation.

For the past few decades, adaptation funds have poured into the Pacific Islands where environments have become increasingly stressed by climate change. These funds have come from donor partners, from international agencies, and have cemented the view that adaptation without cash is impossible. But over the next decade or two, as the costs of domestic adaptation for countries like Australia soar, so the amount of cash that can be spared for adaptation in Pacific Island countries will dwindle. Pacific nations will be left to adapt by themselves, in a context where far less cash is available. Better to map out a return to ‘cashless adaptation’ sooner rather than leave it to the last minute.

Author: Roselyn Kumar


Nunn, P.D. and Kumar, R. 2019. Cashless adaptation to climate change in developing countries: unwelcome yet unavoidable? One Earth, 1, 31–34.

Nukulevu sand island with high Viti Levu Island in the background (Photo: Patrick Nunn)
Nukulevu sand island with high Viti Levu Island in the background
Disappearing sand islands of Fiji


In many western Pacific Island groups, the rate of sea-level rise over the past few decades has been significantly faster than the global average (currently around 3.7 mm/year). In Fiji, the combined effect of rapid sea-level rise (about 4.3 mm/year at present) and tropical cyclones of increasing strength (like TC Winston, February 2016) means that more unconsolidated sand has been mobilised in shallow nearshore ocean areas than was common even a few decades ago.

The upshot of this is that sand islands, which have been occupied/utilised by people for hundreds of years, are disappearing. This disappearance not merely alters the geography of offshore areas but also affects the ecosystems that exist there. Recent surveys of sand islands off the north coast of Viti Levu Island (Fiji) show that these islands were created about 600 years ago, stabilised through mangrove and seagrass colonisation, but are now disappearing.

Authors: Prof Patrick Nunn, Dr Adrian McCallum and Peter Davies 


Nunn, P.D., McKeown, M., McCallum, A., Davies, P., John, E.H., Chandra, R., Thomas, F.R. and Raj, S.N. 2019. Origin, development and prospects of sand islands off the north coast of Viti Levu Island, Fiji, Southwest Pacific. Journal of Coastal Conservation, 23(6), 1005-1018.

Gau Island Gardens
Heading for the food gardens, Malawai Village, Gau Island, Fiji
Supporting climate change adaptation planning in remote contexts.


Planned climate change adaptation initiatives are being developed with both external and endogenous resources at an increasing rate, especially in developing countries. As climate change poses growing risks to the viability of vulnerable communities, there is a growing need to identify lessons learned in the process of planning and implementing climate change adaptation strategies.

This is even more pressing for communities in comparatively remote contexts where access to national/global resources and support services is limited. This project was aimed at identifying key insights across twenty years of experience of community-based resource management and development initiatives on a remote island in Fiji. The insights gained from this project are a key contribution towards acknowledging the relevance of locally-driven initiatives that have the potential to promote a grounded approach to localised climate adaptation and sustainable development.

Author: Daniela Medina Hidalgo

Daniela Medina Hidalgo is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship and a Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Postgraduate Scholarship.

Reference: Article currently under review in the Journal Climate and Development

Empowering Pacific climate adaptation

For several decades, most externally sponsored attempts to embed climate-change adaptation in Pacific Island communities have failed. They have failed to be either effective (they have not addressed the actual problem) or sustainable (they have not brought about changes in practice or understanding). A research project funded by the Australian Research Council to the University of the Sunshine Coast and the University of Queensland (with nine NGO partners) focused on rural communities that had been recipients of external interventions for climate-change adaptation across seven Pacific Island Countries.


Community surveys found that there were several common reasons for adaptation failure. These included a lack of community consultation and effective engagement, the uncritical privileging of western science and developed-world constructs, and the associated lack of acknowledgement of culturally-grounded knowledges. This project concludes that for the future it is hugely important to allow Pacific communities to design and drive their own adaptation, with the role of donors and other outside agencies to be faciliatory rather than controlling.

Project team: Prof Patrick Nunn, Roselyn Kumar, A/Prof Karen McNamara (UQ), Care Australia, Caritas Australia, Conservation Society of Pohnpei (Micronesia), Pacific Conference of Churches (Fiji), Stichting International Red Cross / Red Crescent Centre on Climate Change and Disaster Preparedness (Netherlands), The Foundation of the Peoples of the South Pacific International (Fiji), Wildlife Conservation Society (Fiji), and World Wide Fund for Nature - South Pacific (Fiji).

Funding: ARC Linkage Grant (2016-2019), $180,087 (AUD)

McNamara, K.E., Clissold, R., Westoby, R., Piggott-McKellar, A., Kumar, R., Clarke, T., Namoumou, F., Areki, F., Chisholm, M., Joseph, E., Warrick, O. and Nunn, P.D. 2020. An assessment of community-based adaptation initiatives in the Pacific Islands. Nature Climate Change 10, 628-639.

Clissold, R., Piggott-McKellar, A., McNamara, K., Nunn, P.D. and Westoby, R. (2020). Their fate isn’t sealed: Pacific nations can survive climate change – if locals take the lead. The Conversation, 30 June.

Climate Change Sign
Overgrown sign highlighting an adaptation intervention, Pohnpei (FSM), appears to have been as forgotten as the intervention itself has failed to be sustained
Peripheral communities of northwestern Bua, Fiji, where traditional coping with environmental adversity remains strong
Risk and Resilience in the Pacific: Influence of Peripherality on Exposure and Responses to Global Change


To address the lack of effective sustained interventions for climate-change adaptation in Pacific Island communities, a study to capture individual community risk and resilience profiles using peripherality was undertaken. Based on questionnaires completed in 73 communities in two countries, three peripherality indices were tested and refined and demonstrated to adequately capture various things such as community exposure to climate change and autonomous community coping capacity.

The implications of this study are many, not least in helping define national policy towards greater self-sufficiency but also in helping design more effective and sustainable external interventions for future climate-change adaptation.


Collaborators: Prof Patrick Nunn, Roselyn Kumar, Dr Isoa Korovulavula (University of the South Pacific, Fiji) and Eugene Joseph (Conservation Society of Pohnpei, Micronesia).

Funding: Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN). ($183,000 AUD).

Korovulavula, I., Nunn, P.D., Kumar, R. and Fong, T. (2019). Peripherality as key to understanding opportunities and needs for effective and sustainable climate-change adaptation: a case study from Viti Levu Island, Fiji. Climate and Development.

Nunn, P.D., Joseph, E., Korovulavula, I. and Kumar, R. 2019. Peripherality as key to understanding climate-associated risk and resilience for Pacific Island communities. APN Science Bulletin, 9(1).

Nunn, P.D. and Kumar, R. (2019). Measuring peripherality as a proxy for autonomous community coping capacity: a case study from Bua Province, Fiji Islands, for improving climate change adaptation. Social Sciences, 8(8), 225.

Nunn, P.D. and Kumar, R. 2019. Cashless adaptation to climate change in developing countries: unwelcome yet unavoidable? One Earth, 1, 31–34.

Nunn, P.D., and Kumar, R. (2020). Pacific Islands must stop relying on foreign aid to adapt to climate change, because the money won’t last. The Conversation, 31 July.

For more information on related projects, visit Other Environmental sustainability projects