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In Eastern Caribbean, Chronicle of a Disaster Foretold

A section of the major roadway leading from Dominica’s Melville Hall Airport to the capital, Roseau. The island is highly vulnerable to flooding and landslides. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

MERO, Dominica, Apr 8 2014 (IPS) - Christmas 2013 was the most “dreary and depressing” Don Corriette can remember in a very long time.

“It was a bleak time. People obviously did not plan their Christmas to be like this,” said Corriette, 52, Dominica’s national disaster coordinator.

“The reconstruction efforts are crucial as the hurricane season in the Caribbean is fast approaching." -- Sophie Sirtaine

Days of holiday preparations were swept away when a slow-moving, low-level trough dumped hundreds of millimetres of rain on the island on Dec. 24 and 25. The “freak weather system”, which also affected St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, killed 13 people and destroyed farms and other infrastructure.

Officials said the impact from the extraordinary torrential rainfall, flash floods and landslides was concentrated in areas with the highest levels of poverty.

Just six months earlier, in July 2013, tropical storm Chantal battered Dominica’s southern tip. The worst affected was the tiny southern community of Gallion, where the population is under 100.

“It [the Dec. 24 trough] did cause a high level of distress and anxiety, leaving many not knowing what to do next,” Corriette told IPS.

“There is no doubt that within my lifetime, not only in Dominica but throughout the region and the world by extension, we have seen some very significant differences in patterns of weather over the last 30-40 years that indicate that something is happening and we have to tie it to probably climate change,” he said.

“There are those who do not believe that theory but we have seen it developing and unfolding in front of our very eyes – the melting of the glaciers in the northern regions, the expansion of dry lands in Africa and other places, and the higher intensity of rainfall in the Caribbean islands – not that we are getting more rain but we are getting more intense rainfall in a shorter period of time,” Corriette added.

Flooding as a result of climate impacts has been identified as a threat to a number of communities in Dominica.

Under the Reduce Risks to Human and Natural Assets Resulting from Climate Change (RRACC) project, administered by the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a demonstration project to improve drainage in the Mero community is expected to inform the rest of the country on how to mitigate the impacts of flooding.

The RRACC Project evolved after a series of one-day stakeholder meetings in July 2010 on Climate Variability, Change, and Adaptation in the Caribbean region with individuals from national governments, nongovernmental organisations, the private sector, and donor agencies.

These meetings were convened by the USAID, the OECS, and the Barbados Coastal Zone Management Unit (CZMU). As a result of these meetings, USAID formulated a five-year (2011-2015) framework for climate change adaptation strategy for the Caribbean region to be implemented using “fast-start” financing as part of the U.S. commitment at the December 2009 U.N. climate negotiations in Copenhagen.

The strategy draws from regional and national climate change plans and addresses high priority vulnerabilities in sectors key to the region’s development and economic growth, while identifying specific interventions that could contribute to greater resilience in the Eastern Caribbean.

In St. Vincent and St. Lucia, more than 30,000 people affected by the December 2013 flash floods will start recovering and regaining access to markets, water and electricity through an extra 36 million dollars approved by the World Bank’s Board of Directors under the International Development Association (IDA) Crisis Response Window.

A cleric prays with Colleen James in Cane Grove, St. Vincent hours before it was confirmed that James' sister had died in the floodwaters. Her two-year-old daughter was also missing. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

A cleric prays with Colleen James in Cane Grove, St. Vincent hours before it was confirmed that James’ sister had died in the floodwaters. Her two-year-old daughter was also missing. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

The Governments’ Rapid Damage and Loss Assessments conducted in January with assistance from the World Bank, the Africa Caribbean Pacific – European Union (ACP-EU) Natural Risk Reduction Programme and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), estimated total losses to be around 108 million dollars, or 15 percent of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines’ gross domestic product (GDP); and 99 million dollars or eight percent of GDP in Saint Lucia.

“We will never forget the people who lost their lives as a result of this disaster, and will use their deaths as a wake-up call for the entire nation that we are a country that is highly vulnerable to natural disasters and the impacts of climate variability,” St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves told IPS.

The disaster happened at the peak of the tourism season. While the full financial impact remains unknown, early estimates conclude that this event will affect the agriculture and tourism sectors and result in economic contractions in both countries.

“While services and transport access have been largely reinstated, parallel efforts will need to be undertaken to mobilise resources required to stabilise and permanently rehabilitate, reconstruct and retrofit damaged infrastructure,” St. Lucia’s Prime Minister Dr. Kenny Anthony told IPS.

Within a few weeks of the disaster, the World Bank was able to make 1.9 million dollars in emergency funds available to support the governments’ recovery efforts.

“The reconstruction efforts are crucial as the hurricane season in the Caribbean is fast approaching,” said Sophie Sirtaine, World Bank country director for the Caribbean. “Our financial support will not only rebuild critical infrastructure and boost the economy, it will also help build long-term climate resilience.”

Last week, St. Lucia announced it is conducting a survey to determine the potential impact of climate change on the supply of and demand for freshwater as well as on the exposure, sensitivity and vulnerability of the livelihoods of communities.

The Climate Change Adaptation Strategies for Water Resources and Human Livelihoods in the Coastal Zones of Small Island Developing States (CASCADE) is being undertaken by the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES) of the St. Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI) in collaboration with the Italty-based Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change (CMCC) and the Belize-based Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC).

The survey will also seek to determine how households view environmental issues affecting their communities.

“The survey results will provide guidance for future public awareness programmes and policy development. The knowledge obtained will also allow government agencies, NGOs and community groups to take appropriate measures to adapt to and, hopefully, minimize the negative impacts identified, which will be to the benefit of all the citizens of St. Lucia,” according to a statement issued by the government.

It said that surveyors would be visiting households throughout the island until May 13, reiterating that the results of the exercise “will be of critical importance to individuals, their families and to St. Lucia”.

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