Pacific Challenges: Urbanization Brings Change and Opportunity to Island Nations

A boy and his father walk with fishing gear into the Pacific Ocean near Tarawa, Kiribati. © UNICEF/Giacomo Pirozzi


By Tuiloma Neroni Slade

There are few places in the world where population growth and urbanization collide more starkly with vulnerability to climate change and disaster risk than in the Pacific region. As increasing numbers of Pacific Islanders move to towns and cities, the region’s long-standing tradition of rural ‘subsistence affluence’ is being eroded, and societies are grappling with new aspects of urban poverty, including undernutrition, youth unemployment, and crime.

Almost a quarter of Pacific Islanders live in urban centres (up from only 8.5 percent in 1950), and half of the region’s countries already have majority urban populations. While Vanuatu and Solomon Islands remain predominantly rural, their urban growth rates are among the highest in the world. In Fiji, the termination of land leases in some rural areas has pushed renters to seek employment and shelter in towns and cities.

Migration, both rural-urban and international, has resulted in the decline of stable populations in parts of Polynesia, while rapid urban growth in the context of Pacific Island geography has created some of the world’s most densely populated areas: Certain parts of the Tarawa atoll in archipelagic Kiribati have 7,000 people per square kilometre.

The manifold social, environmental, and economic consequences of urbanization significantly affect the lives of children and young people. A recent study by the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and the Pacific Centre of the United Nations Development Programme, Urban Youth in the Pacific: Increasing resilience and reducing risk for involvement in crime and violence, documented a wide range of links between urbanization and social problems, with a particular focus on young people’s heightened exposure to crime and violence. Another study found that one third of children in Port Vila, Vanuatu, live in poverty – a rate nearly 20 percent higher than the national average.

Traditionally, the land and the sea have provided generations with shelter and sustenance. The links between urban communities and the environment are weaker. People are more dependent on store-purchased commodities and, consequently, are vulnerable to the vagaries of the global economy. The knock-on effects are felt as children are taken out of school, families cut back on food, and financial worries lead to increased domestic violence and youth crime.

Still, the urban environment presents possibilities that attract young people over any other group: opportunities for artistic expression and forging of new identities, better access to technology, wider social networks, and new forms of entertainment. Meanwhile, elevated school dropout rates, unemployment, and the absence of stabilizing traditional social support structures render many young people vulnerable to destructive influences.

Children and young people will be the major players in building the future success of our communities and ensuring the continued viability of our environments. Securing their well-being demands a proactive, holistic, and equitable approach to the challenges urbanization brings, beginning with critical issues such as access to safe water, housing, and schools. Disaster mitigation and preparedness strategies are also crucial in densely populated areas. At the same time, a deeper understanding of the push and pull factors that result in the rural-urban drift may help us develop sustainable, targeted and practical policies to better harness the potential of our young people.

Tuiloma Neroni Slade
Tuiloma Neroni Slade

Pacific leaders need to make a determined effort to tackle the challenges of urbanization, one of the most pressing forces of our time. Otherwise, the vision of the Pacific as a region of peace, harmony, security, and economic prosperity – where everyone can lead free and worthwhile lives – will remain illusory. The future of the next generation is at stake.


Tuiloma Neroni Slade is the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.  This essay was adapted from one appearing in The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World, published by UNICEF. The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent UNICEF’s position.

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