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GEM History

The Geoscience, Energy and Maritime Division (GEM) within the Pacific Community is steeped in almost 50 years of expertise and history.  At its formation the core scientific and technical understanding of the region’s natural resources such as sand, gravel, rock and water led the development of this Division.  After almost five decades the Division is still using scientific and technical innovations to drive development solutions for the Pacific, led by the Pacific.



The GEM Division was officially created in late 2017 after the merge of SPC’s Geoscience and Economic Development Divisions. This brought together the work across SPC in renewable energy, maritime safety & transport, disaster risk reduction, hazard and risk understanding, water and sanitation, oceans management and understanding of our land and mineral resources for sustainable use into the future.

GEM originally began as the endeared South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC) in 1972 and was later named the Pacific Island Applied Geoscience Commission after its membership expanded into the North Pacific and to neigbouring Pacific Territories. SOPAC became part of the Pacific Community (SPC) in 2011 after Pacific Leaders decided to ensure its long-term sustainability by bringing it into the region’s largest development agency.

The commission was created almost 50 years ago to support the need in accessing, understanding, developing and implementing cutting edge scientific and technical solutions.  Initially in the late 1960’s there had been interest in offshore mineral potential, particularly in Fiji and Tonga.  This piqued the interest of international scientists including geologists and researchers to help in understanding one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.

This initial focus expanded into an integrated and dynamic regional agency supporting better understanding of the region’s natural resources, hazard and risk understanding, in-depth scientific approaches for our ocean and protection of water resources for the region.


  • 1972 - SOPAC Founded

    Founding members Fiji, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, New Zealand, Tonga

  • 1973 – Cook Islands join SOPAC
  • 1980 – First major project awarded focused resources
  • 1984

    Tuvalu and Guam become members
    Training programme begins with robust approach to capacity building for Pacific Island scientists. First Earth Science and Marine Geology Course at USP

  • 1985

    SOPAC adds significant Ocean work with coastal mapping
    SOPAC becomes independent agency no longer connected to UNDP

  • 1986

    Australia becomes member

  • 1990

    Federated States of Micronesia and Republic of Marshall Islands become members

  • 1992

    French Polynesia and New Caledonia become associate members

  • 1994

    Niue becomes member

    Oceans management and science bolstered with project focused on coastal mapping and training for countries.

    Water and Sanitation programme assumed from UNDP boosting our work in this area

  • 1996

    South Pacific Applied Geoscience Organisation renamed to Pacific Islands Applied Geoscience Organisation.

  • 1998 - Major Shift

    Assimilation of Energy Unit from Forum Secretariat

    Assimilation of Disaster Reduction Programme

    Assimilation of Humanitarian Affairs for the Pacific

    Nauru became a member

  • 2002

    American Samoa becomes associate member

  • 2003

    Palau becomes a member

  • 2005

    Tokelau becomes associate member

  • 2010

    Pacific Leaders vote for SOPAC to assimilate into Pacific’s largest development agency SPC

    SPC Geoscience Division created

  • 2017

    Geoscience Division and Economic Development Division merged into Geoscience, Energy & Maritime Division (GEM Division)

  • 2018

    GEM Division key programmes and structure developed.

    Three technical programmes Disaster & Community Resilience Programme; Georesources & Energy Programme; Oceans & Maritime Programme; and Programming, Performance & Systems to support the delivery of the rest of the scientific and technical work.

SOPAC History

South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC) was created as part of a UNDP Project arm (November 1972)

Founded by the members of Solomon Islands, Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Samoa held the first session at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva with Fiji appointed as Chair of the Committee.  

Cook Islands became a member in 1973 during the second annual session held in Nuku’alofa, Tonga which brought technical advisory teams in from Australia, France, Germany, Japan, United Kingdom and United States.

Kiribati and Vanuatu then joined in 1980 which also marked the start of SOPAC’s first major project ‘Investigation of Mineral Potential of the South Pacific’. At this time the work included 75 country projects and 28 regional projects focused on marine geoscience. By 1984, Guam and Tuvalu jointed the Commission.

In 1984 the training arm which is still relevant today began with the first Certificate in Earth Science and Marine Geology courses being offered to Pacific students at the University of the South Pacific and at New Zealand’s, Victoria University.

Era of Ocean Management Begins

By 1985, a major shift in the technical work occurred moving into coastal mapping for countries including running workshops at country level to increase engagement and understanding of the Pacific Ocean.  This recognition and scientific work to best understand how to harness and understand the Ocean for the region was at the core of this work and has continued to become one of our flagship programmes in the newly created GEM Division.

By the 1990s the team were supporting significant project delivery focused on areas such as managing coastal erosion, nearshore sand and gravel resources, geological and geophysical work on oceanographic data including weather, waves and currents related to sediment movement and erosion.  This included mapping of the physical environment.

Era of Water Resources & Sanitation

In 1994 SOPAC assumed full responsibility of the UNDP Water Resources and Sanitation Programme taking the mantel of this critical work which has become increasingly important in recent decades.  This boosted our work in coordination, assessment, water security and capacity development focused on water resources.  The fundamental importance of freshwater was emphasised and SOPAC’s strategic role as regional coordinator in this sector was cemented. This work has also become part of our flagship science working alongside Pacific governments to support resource management, water security, sanitation and more.

Training programmes for capacity building embedded

During this period the Training Programme expanded beyond the Earth Science and Marine Geology Certificate course, to scholarships for first degree studies, and fellowships for on-the-job training attachments, seminars, and workshops as well as management training at the Secretariat. In 1996, a record 25 students commenced the first year of the 3-year certificate course  with eight countries represented, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu.

SOPAC became targeted on addressing three essential sectors in the island system; aggregates (georesources) for resilient construction, water resources supply and sanitation; and hazard mitigation and risk assessment. This shared focus underpins the integrated science currently being achieved within the GEM Division.  

Era of Science Based Decision-Making leading technical areas of work

In 1998, the SOPAC team assimilated three core programmes which are still actively driven and relevant for the Pacific today.  The first was the assimilation of the Forum Secretariats Energy Unit. This is now a driver with the GEM Division for sustainable development and access to energy for many islands in the region.

1998 also saw the handing over of the UN South Pacific Disaster Reduction Project and the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs South Pacific Programme.  These have developed into the Disaster & Community Resilience Programme over the past two decades and are a driver for the innovative approaches and science based decision making across the region.

From 2002, the establishment of the Community Risk Programme ensured the hazard and disaster management activities were closely coordinated. In 2005 the Pacific Disaster Risk Reduction and Disaster Management Framework was adopted, and this has been followed by the establishment of a Pacific Disaster Partnership Network.  This has now become the Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific (FRDP) led by the CROP agencies and based in more than two decades of critical scientific and technical understanding.

Oceans Management expands

Further Ocean management work continued into 1996 and onwards with the deployment of the first wave-rider buoys to provide extensive data collection in Cook Islands, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

The organisation continues to have a lead coordination and regional role on activities related to Oceans Management built by the many years of understanding, research, and applied scientific methods that has been driven by Pacific people.

In 1998, the organisation responded to the International Year of the Ocean. It coordinated with IOC/UNESCO the launching of the Pacific chapter of the Global Ocean Observing System (Pacific GOOS) and the establishment of a small unit at the Secretariat to coordinate Pacific activities. To support ocean observing programmes GEM Division continues to lead in this work and has supported institutions deploying buoys and floats to monitor ocean characteristics.

A critical area for the region still today is Maritime Boundaries which began as part of the organiation in 2002. The commencement of the Regional Maritime Boundaries Project which continues to the present day is still critical both supporting important surveying work to help countries with their boundary definitions and to drive the impact global challenges will have on our boundaries into the future.  In 2009 the project time provided invaluable support to countries with the lodgement of their claims under Article 76. Eight island members (Cook Islands, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Palau, Tonga, and Vanuatu) successfully lodged their submissions for approximately 1.8 million square kilometres of additional seabed territory before the May 13th 2009 deadline.

GEM Division begins

Pacific Leaders voted to transition SOPAC into the Pacific Community (SPC) and this transition led to the work continuing but under the auspices of the GEM Division today.  

The GEM Division is made up of three scientific and technical programmes delivering on the exceptional foresight of the found members and history within our region across areas such as Disaster, Climate Change, Natural Resource Management, Water and Sanitation, Water Security, Ecosystem DRR, Hazard and Risk Understanding, Energy including the growth of renewable energies, geotechnical resource understanding, Oceans management including sea-level rise, maritime boundaries, ocean literacy and ocean safety & navigation,

We have almost five decades of scientific and technical innovations that have worked to support the development challenges in the Pacific.