Hur­ri­canes: a longer-term view is now es­sen­tial

Stabroek News Sunday - - WORLD NEWS -

Ear­lier this year, the Com­mon­wealth Ma­rine Economies Pro­gramme pub­lished a re­port on the im­pact of cli­mate change on Caribbean Small Is­land De­vel­op­ing States (SIDS). In part, it ob­served that while the over­all fre­quency of the At­lantic storms the Caribbean ex­pe­ri­ences may de­crease in the fu­ture, there is an 80 per cent chance that as the cen­tury pro­ceeds the num­ber of dev­as­tat­ing cat­e­gory four and five storms will in­crease.

It warned that although glob­ally, sea lev­els are fore­cast to rise on av­er­age by 26-82 cm (10-32 inches), this fig­ure could be higher in the north­ern Caribbean by 25 per cent over the same pe­riod pos­ing a sig­nif­i­cant risk of dam­age by storm surges to set­tle­ments, in­fra­struc­ture and bio­di­ver­sity.

More­over, the study’s au­thors noted, Caribbean sea-sur­face tem­per­a­tures will likely be uni­form across all sea­sons, warm­ing to more than 28 ºC with neg­a­tive year­round im­pli­ca­tions for hur­ri­cane in­ten­sity and early sea­son rain­fall. There will also be a ten­dency to­wards more dry spells, in­creas­ing risks from drought, and ex­treme rain­fall events.

Seek­ing to quan­tify what this means for the re­gion’s fu­ture eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, it pro­vided es­ti­mates, on an is­land by is­land ba­sis up to 2025, of the likely neg­a­tive im­pact on Caribbean GDP of in­ac­tion.

Sadly, the hor­rific dam­age to the re­gional econ­omy, to say noth­ing of the suf­fer­ing caused to mil­lions of Caribbean cit­i­zens by Hur­ri­canes Irma and Maria, demon­strates the science be­hind the re­port, the im­por­tance of its rec­om­men­da­tions, and the truly ex­is­ten­tial na­ture of the threat that now faces the re­gion.

Rightly, the present fo­cus is on re­lief and re­cov­ery, but beyond vi­tal short-term re­sponses and the pro­vi­sion of im­me­di­ate ex­ter­nal sup­port there is a need to take a long-term con­sid­ered view about the poli­cies needed to ad­dress this.

The first point to make is that re­silience is about more than re­pair­ing in­fra­struc­ture. It is about de­fend­ing the eco­nomic con­tri­bu­tion of the fifty per cent of the Caribbean pop­u­la­tion, and the ma­jor­ity of the re­gion’s pro­duc­tive and ser­vices en­ter­prises, in­fra­struc­ture and frag­ile ecosys­tems, that lie within 1.2 miles of the coast. This sug­gests not just pro­tect­ing the built and nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment along coast­lines through in­vest­ment in in­fra­struc­ture, but poli­cies that en­sure all new struc­tures, in­vest­ments and hous­ing are hard­ened in ways that sus­tain fu­ture eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.

Un­for­tu­nately, this is eas­ier said than done as the costs are likely to be enor­mous. The Ger­man-based Cen­tre for Disas­ter Man­age­ment and Risk Re­duc­tion Tech­nol­ogy (CEDIM) has said that from Hur­ri­cane Irma alone, the re­gion, ex­clud­ing Cuba, will likely ex­pe­ri­ence ab­so­lute losses of at least US$10 bil­lion mak­ing it the most dam­ag­ing recorded Caribbean storm ever.

This sug­gests that what is re­quired is a loud, long-term, co-or­di­nated strat­egy that con­stantly and con­sis­tently re­minds oth­ers, in­clud­ing the US and China, about the im­por­tance of the re­gion be­ing an early ben­e­fi­ciary of the US$100 bil­lion UN cli­mate change fund; the mech­a­nism meant to en­able de­vel­op­ing coun­tries adapt to and mit­i­gate the ef­fects of global warm­ing. There is also a need for sig­nif­i­cantly in­creased lev­els of in­ter­na­tional sup­port for the Caribbean Catas­tro­phe Risk In­surance Fa­cil­ity, the re­gional disas­ter fund for Caribbean gov­ern­ments es­tab­lished in 2007.

Se­condly, there is the need to ad­dress a more fun­da­men­tal prob­lem: the way in which the Caribbean is now cat­e­gorised when it comes to de­vel­op­ment as­sis­tance. To ar­gue that the Caribbean, Haiti apart, is in­el­i­gi­ble for such sup­port be­cause it con­sists of mid­dle-rank­ing de­vel­op­ing economies, is to miss the point. Most Caribbean is­lands are small, have sig­nif­i­cant lev­els of poverty as well as wealth, rely on one or two in­dus­tries, have high lev­els of debt, and a con­se­quent in­ca­pac­ity to be able to rapidly re­store eco­nomic growth af­ter a nat­u­ral disas­ter. If the UN sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment goals and de­vel­op­ment pri­or­i­ties are to have any real mean­ing for small is­land de­vel­op­ing states, the ex­ist­ing cri­te­ria for el­i­gi­bil­ity needs ad­just­ing to ac­count for their small­ness and vul­ner­a­bil­ity. This too will not be easy to achieve. It re­quires the world to find a rea­son to reach a con­sen­sus that small is­lands are dif­fer­ent at just the time when the US Pres­i­dent is set­ting aside in­ter-de­pen­dence, sug­gest­ing to an al­most silent UN Gen­eral Assem­bly that coun­tries should take re­spon­si­bil­ity for them­selves. De­spite this, Caribbean gov­ern­ments need to con­tinue to re­mind the world in all fora that it is not the Caribbean that cre­ated cli­mate change, rather it is the fail­ings of oth­ers that have placed the re­gion in in­creased jeop­ardy. The third is that much greater at­ten­tion is needed to try to en­sure that a larger pro­por­tion of the built en­vi­ron­ment is ro­bust so that dam­age is less likely to be cat­a­strophic. This re­quires an in­creased fo­cus on reg­u­la­tions, and the long-term hard­en­ing of in­fra­struc­ture to with­stand cat­e­gory five storms, es­pe­cially when it comes to key util­i­ties, fa­cil­i­ties such as hos­pi­tals and air­ports, shel­ters, har­bours, and sea de­fences. Fourthly, more thought needs to be paid to civil de­fence pro­grammes. Pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence al­ready ex­ists within the re­gion. Cuba, moved 1.7 mil­lion peo­ple to safety be­fore Hur­ri­cane Irma. It has a de­vel­oped, well-co-or­di­nated sys­tem that ad­dresses is­sues be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter a hur­ri­cane. This de­serves study, adap­ta­tion and adop­tion by oth­ers. Fifthly, in the af­ter­math of any ma­jor storm there is a need to bet­ter co-or­di­nate short, medium and long-term mes­sag­ing pri­or­i­ties. There are many ex­am­ples af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma struck where gov­ern­ments were stress­ing se­ri­ous dam­age to eco­nomic in­fra­struc­ture and hard­ship, while the tourism sec­tor, for un­der­stand­able com­mer­cial rea­sons, were say­ing all was well and they would be open­ing as nor­mal for the com­ing sea­son.

Sixthly, it should be more widely recog­nised that vis­i­tor per­cep­tion and mes­sag­ing have be­come a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of the fu­ture suc­cess of the re­gional econ­omy. Through­out Hur­ri­cane Irma’s course, vis­i­tors’ use of so­cial me­dia drove the in­ter­na­tional news agenda, down­graded the far greater suf­fer­ing of is­lan­ders, and rightly or wrongly, cre­ated con­cerns about the long-term se­cu­rity of some des­ti­na­tions.

And fi­nally, there is a need to ad­dress the dam­ag­ing im­pres­sion of the re­gion cre­ated by the con­sular and other fail­ings of some coun­tries and their tour op­er­a­tors, by agree­ing jointly, time-lined evac­u­a­tion pro­to­cols.

Cli­mate change is real, and likely to be last­ing. It re­quires sus­tained lead­er­ship and long-term plan­ning if the eco­nomic and hu­man im­pact of fu­ture dis­as­ters is to be min­imised.

Pre­vi­ous col­umns can be found at www.caribbean-coun­cil.org

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