Environmental sustainability | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

Accessibility links

Environmental sustainability

Sustaining the viability of Pacific Islands environments is about resilience. 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 communities navigated challenges to sustain, restore, or adapt their livelihoods is crucial, especially in the face of climate changes occurring at unprecedented rates. The significance of this challenge cannot be overstated. ACPIR researchers recognise the importance of blending traditional Pacific coping methods with scientific approaches. Collaboratively developing and implementing solutions with Pacific communities is critical for their survival.

Research projects

Our Vanua Project: Climate-smart regenerative ridge to reef landscapes for sustaining livelihoods of communities on custom land and food security in Vanuatu.  


Vanuatu's rural communities are grappling with the impacts of climate change on their 'Vanua', as well as challenges related to population pressures, food consumption, local governance structures, leadership, and the increasing tendency to view land more as a commodity than as a vital social and natural resource. In this context, 'Vanua' represents the interconnectedness of the land, its people, traditions, customs, beliefs, values, and the various institutions established to foster harmony, solidarity, and prosperity within a specific social framework.

'Our Vanua Project' aims to use Critical Participatory Action Research (CPAR) to empower communities in Community Conservation Areas (CCA’s) to develop regenerative climate-smart plans for ridge-to-reef landscapes and food systems. The research will establish a model and engage with other non-community, higher-level stakeholders to enable multi-scaling, which will include a policy engagement process and plan to communicate the model to next users. Case studies with three communities, using an iterative and interdisciplinary approach, will build models based on local knowledge to address climate change impacts on livelihoods and food security within the CCAs. 

The project seeks to improve the well being of the people, economic benefits and biodiverse ecosystems of Vanuatu's rural communities (Vanua). Goals include improving Vanua members' health, fostering sustainable livelihoods, and empowering diverse groups for informed decision-making. The project team envision collaborative planning and management led by Vanua communities, supported by government, NGO, and private sector partners. A final aim is to influence NGOs and government departments across the Pacific to adopt a Vanua-led model, integrating traditional knowledge with current research for a novel approach to conservation.

Project team: 

Dr Cherise Addinsall (Project Leader); Prof Steven Underhill; Dr Luke Verstraten, Dr Javier Leon; Joan Huriez; Vanuatu Department of Environmental Protection and Conservation; Regenerative Vanua; Live and Learn. 

Funding: ACIAR $1.6M

Group of people smiling for the camera

Project team:
Prof Steven Underhill, Dr Linda Wess, Dr Daniela Medina Hidalgo, Dr Richard Markham, Dr Bree Wilson, Dr Seeseei Molimau-Samasoni, Dr Salesh Kumar, Ms Shivani Singh, Ms Gail Wilkins, Dr Libby Swanepoel, and Prof Phil Brown

ACIAR A$3,276,075


PASS-CR Program
Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research PASS-CR

The Pacific Agriculture Scholarships, Support and Climate Resilience Program (PASS-CR)

2021 - 2024

ACPIR partnered with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) to continue ACIAR’s capacity building work for students from Pacific Island countries undertaking postgraduate studies in agricultural fields.
The PASS-CR program is a multi-university capacity building program providing scholarships and support to postgraduate students and academics at the University of the South Pacific (USP) and Fiji National University (FNU). Scholarships are offered in the Pacific, to Pacific Islanders, enabling scholars to research agricultural problems within the context that the solutions need to work, to build professional networks which will be relevant post-study and to remain close to family and culture.
ACPIR provides additional academic support to PASS-CR scholars and academic staff including professional development, access to the UniSC library, peer-to-peer learning, research collaboration, and higher degree research supervision training. Student work placements and career development are included under PASS-CR to build ongoing industry connections.

The PASS-CR Program aims to strengthen the Pacific agricultural innovation system through building on the strengths of Pacific universities and their regional partners.
The PASS-CR Climate Resilience program fosters these innovations by offering post-graduate students and supervisors the opportunity to link their research with leading researchers in Australian and Pacific centres of excellence in climate change resilience research.

Supporting climate change adaptation planning in remote contexts.

2019 - 2023

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.

Reference: Medina Hidalgo,D., Nunn, P.D., Beazley, H. Svio Sovinasalevu, J. and Vietayaki, J. 2021. Climate change adaptation planning in remote contexts: insights from community-based natural resource management and rural development initiatives in the Pacific Islands. Journal Climate and Development, 13(10, 909-921.

Gau Island Gardens
Heading for the food gardens, Malawai Village, Gau Island, Fiji

Author: Dr 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.

Majuro Atoll, Marshall Islands (Wikimedia Commons)

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.


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. Largely formed from reef-derived sands and gravels, these atoll islands are 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.


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.


Collapsed seawalls, Navunievu Village (Bua, Fiji),

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.

Cattle in farmland on Malakula (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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.



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.



Peripheral communities of northwestern Bua, Fiji, where traditional coping with environmental adversity remains strong

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)

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

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 

Empowering Pacific climate adaptation

2016 - 2019

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.


  • 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.

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.


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

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.