Environmental sustainability - University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Environmental sustainability

Sustaining the viability of island environments is about survival.

Over the hundreds and thousands of years that 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

Fiji sea wall

Faluw (meeting house), Rumung Island, Yap, Micronesia

Research projects

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.