The focus on building resilience in the informal urbanisation, which is rapidly increasing in the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) located in the Pacific region becomes progressively more urgent as the vulnerability and risk due to climate change impacts increases as well.

There is increasing recognition that implementing social protection, through policy-mandated legislation and programmes, can address the increasing and unprecedented risk and vulnerability of the rapidly growing urban poor population in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Pacific region.

The SIDS house roughly eight million people spread out on more than 30 percent of the earth’s surface, around 25,000 islands. These islands house distinct and diverse cultures and practices. In a climate-changing world, the Pacific island nations are at the frontline of receiving some of the worst impact of climate change. The need for more social protection, focusing on the long-term well-being and resilience of informal settlement’ inhabitants, is increasing as the issues continue to grow.


Urban Pacific development and vulnerability

The Pacific (along with the Asian region at large, to which it is often categorised as a sub-region) is rapidly moving from being predominantly rural, to increasingly urban. This trend of increasing urbanisation sees the corresponding emergence of urgent issues ranging from natural disasters, health, employment, crime, infrastructure, and therefore, the need for innovative social protection programmes.

This unprecedented urban development is one of the biggest contemporary challenges for PSIDS governments. The 21st century has commonly been described as the “urban century”, characterised by the dominant numbers of people living in urban settings, such as cities and towns, compared to rural living arrangements in the countryside (UN Habitat, 2015). Despite this evolution resulting in economic development; creating a growing middle class in the sub-region, obstacles remain.

The rapid urbanisation has been motivated by growing environmental and socio-economic challenges. Poor communities are especially vulnerable to risks and shocks in urban areas, where they are forced to live in urban slums. A large portion of SIDS inhabitants live in urban slums and below the poverty line (UN Habitat, 2015).

The region is extremely prone to natural disasters, and numerous SIDS in the Pacific are categorised as the “most at-risk” countries in the world to multi-hazards (Sharma, 2018): The cities in the countries are highly impacted by climate change and addressing resilience in the region’s cities is of high priority.


Informal settlements: Customary land rights and employment

The expansion of cities in the Pacific region has been through both formal and informal channels. Many people live in informal settlements, which do not receive basic services, resulting in health and infrastructure challenges. This extends to landownership rights challenges, which undermines resilience (Bryant-Tokalau, 2014).

The issue of landownership in the Pacific region dates back to historical times. Land titling schemes in favour of the rapidly growing urban poor population have been successful in some parts of Asia. However, the Pacific has proven to be a difficult case due to the complexity of customary tenured land, and the tensions which follow, as well as the strong cultural ties to the land. Without formal land rights among the urban poor, and insecure prospects of ever attaining such rights, building resilience against climate change impacts is a pressing priority.

Shock responsive social protection can play a key role in this regard: Social protection policies and programmes, targeted at both the ever expanding urban population in informal settlements and the poor with customary law entitlements to land, can increase resilience to climate change impacts.

What’s more, without such protection, populations on rural traditional land will be forced to seek urban employment. This will exacerbate the demand for jobs in urban areas, further compromising urban residents, even those who do not currently encounter poverty or vulnerability. This vicious circle reveals the importance of social protection for rural poor and urban dwellers in informal settlements.


Urban versus rural climate change adaptation

The SIDS recently attracted attention for their heightened vulnerability in global climate change negotiations as well as related intergovernmental frameworks (Trundle et al., 2018). This progressive attention and focus on making the Pacific islands resilient has initiated the design and implementation of several social protection programmes and policies.

The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat), which is the United Nations agency for human settlements and sustainable urban development, has initiated several projects in the Asian region, and recently also focused on informal settlements in the Pacific region. UN Habitat and its research partners from Australian universities have operated in Honiara, the Solomon Islands, and Port Villa in Vanuatu. Their collaboration features among the most prominent in making urban informal settlements, and urban centres in general, more resilient to the impact of climate change.

UN Habitat orchestrated the Slum Upgrading Programme in Fiji, from 2008-2015, funded by the European Commission (EU), the African, Caribbean and Pacific Secretariat, and the Norwegian Government. The partners in the programme were the national government, city and town councils as well as development partners operating in the Pacific region. The objective of the programme was to include the perceived issues of urbanisation in four Fijian urban areas, through social assistance, an inclusive approach to all the land stakeholders, and further development of Fiji’s housing policy development (UN Habitat, 2015).

Despite some developments in climate change adaptation and mitigation policies in the SIDS, limited policymaking has been developed for disaster risk reduction in building codes and urban planning (Trundle et al., 2018). This is a result of the international development focus being on rural and remote communities, who are the recipients of both social insurance and assistance in overcoming and adapting to climate change.

With the landownership issues of urban informal settlements, developing sustainable and legal social protection, such as social insurance and assistance, has to a large degree not been possible on account of the original illegality of the residency (Bryant-Tokalau, 2014). Without a legal right to the land, no legal protection can be established.


A sustainable way forward

For a prosperous future, UN Habitat recommends a balanced model of growth where everybody, including the poor, needs to enjoy the benefits of development. Efforts need to be made to encourage and invest in urban development (UN Habitat, 2015). Today, a large portion of the urban population resides in informal settlements that do not provide access to decent shelter, secure land tenure, accessible and affordable healthcare, or social protection coverage. The most in need in this regard face the greatest vulnerability.

The way forward is to design and implement policies that address the urban-rural social divides and transform informal settlements into sustainable formal settlements. This requires a renewed focus on resilience and inclusive urban social policy agendas (UN Habitat, 2015). Social protection in the Pacific can address rapid urbanisation, revers urban degradation, avoid social tensions, and increase resilience to climate change.


Reference List:

UN Habitat and United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) (2015). The State of Asian and Pacific Cities 2015, Bangkok. Accessible:

Bryant-Tokalau, Jennifer J. (2014). “Urban squatters and the poor in Fiji: Issues of land and investment in coastal areas”, Asia Pacific Viewpoint: Vol. 55, No. 1, pg. 54-66. Accessible:

Sharma, Manohar (2018). Risk and vulnerability in the Pacific (English), Poverty & equity note; no. 1. Washington, D. C.: World Bank Group. Accessible:

Trundle, Alexei, Barth, Bernhard and Mcevoy, Darryn (2018). Leveraging endogenous climate resilience: Urban adaptation in Pacific Small Island Developing States, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED): Vol 31, No. 1, pg. 53–74. Accessible:

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
  • Social insurance
Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Policy
    • Laws and Policies
    • Governance and coordination
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Informal social protection
  • Social protection systems
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Disaster risk management / reduction
  • Environment
  • Housing and infrastructure
  • Inequalities
  • Poverty reduction
  • Resilience
  • Fiji
  • East Asia & Pacific
The views presented here are the author's and not's