Building back better: the Caribbean’s wind of change

hurricane damage, repairs in BVI, Dominica

By Debbie Ransome

 

British billionaire Richard Branson called it a Marshall Plan for the Caribbean.

 

Antigua & Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne called it ”building on a sustainable basis in order to limit the impact” of future natural disaster.

Whatever it’s going to be called, Caribbean leaders, planners and citizens are increasingly talking about the need for a fresh approach to coping with all that Mother Nature has to throw at their archipelago of territories, prone to geo-faults and cross-Atlantic high winds.

Immediately after Hurricane Irma had wiped out most of Barbuda, St Lucia’s Prime Minister Allen Chastenet was part of the first delegation to arrive in Antigua.

He told reporters in the immediate hours after Irma: “What has taken place in the last few days was a wake-up call for all of us that we cannot continue business as usual.”

The St Lucian leader pointed out that previous areas of support, such as turning to immediate back-up from the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, would not work if these neighbours were also getting “knocked out” by the same storms.

“We’re too dependent on [countries in the] North,” he told reporters.

Back to the drawing board

One of the first ideas after the two major 2017 hurricanes came from Guyana’s President, David Granger. He suggested a new way to house those left homeless by natural disaster in the short term. He suggested that Guyana’s vast land space on the South American continent could serve as a “gift” for those battered by hurricanes on Caribbean island territories.

Speaking to Guyanese journalists during a United Nations General Assembly meeting in September, President Granger said that Guyana, as the largest Caribbean Community (CARICOM) nation, could consider its land space as the “hinterland of the Caribbean”.

“We have to sit down and speak to other CARICOM states to see how this gift could be utilised to give the Caribbean people a better life in the wake of these disasters,” he told journalists in New York.

President Granger said “The Caribbean has got to go to the drawing board again. We’ve got to create a more effective platform – maybe in terms of architecture, in terms of response, in terms of measures to provide relief to our citizens in different countries – Guyana has got a wide diaspora – but we’ve also got to look at the logistical capability of the Caribbean Community.”

He has also suggested that protection of Commonwealth Caribbean states be placed on the agenda for the Commonwealth leaders’ summit in London next year.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Trade Ministry has also spotted the potential of offering a berth for boats, as the other CARICOM territory below the usual hurricane belt.

The ministry said in a September 2017 press release, based on its Trinidad & Tobago’s 2017 - 2021 Yachting Policy (issued ahead of hurricanes Irma and Maria), that Trinidad & Tobago had an economically viable maritime sub-sector, given the islands’ “strategic geographic location below the hurricane belt” to provide yacht repair, maintenance services and storage capabilities.

Climate change and beyond

The first-to-arrive delegation to Antigua after Hurricane Irma included Dominica’s Prime Minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, whose own country would take the next pummelling from Hurricane Maria.

Mr Skerrit said in Antigua after Irma that the Caribbean faced a huge undertaking and that it needed to look at permanent solutions following such crises. He added that the “international community [had] a moral obligation to help Antigua & Barbuda in addressing this issue”.

The storms also focused CARICOM as it moved into repairing and rebuilding mode while marking November 2017’s regional Energy Awareness Month.

CARICOM Energy Programme Manager Dr Devon Gardner noted at the start-of-month launch that Dominica had been on the verge of reaching financial closure for the construction of a geothermal plant as part of the regional move towards new energy methods.

“A strategic focus on energy, climate and disaster risk as the central plank within our respective development models is needed, such that the efficient and cost‑effective production, delivery and use of renewable energy decouple our development from expensive fossil fuel use,“ Dr Gardner said.

The hurricanes blew the plight of small islands straight to the top of the agenda of November’s COP23 meeting in Bonn.

Dominica’s announcement that it would rebuild to become the first climate-resilient nation was welcomed by UN and other officials.

But, as Dominica’s leader told Florida’s WLRN station, climate resilience costs are costly.

“What we’re doing is taking an opportunity to build back better; to build a more climate-resilient nation, the first in the world,” he told the station.

Long term funding

Prime Minister Skerrit continued: “We’re now putting the master plan in place. It entails sustainable livelihoods - in respect to energy, moving more into renewables - geothermal, solar. And we’ll certainly be looking at the construction codes in the state of Florida, for example, because we share the hurricane path. I mean, it’s going to be a huge cost, and we will welcome all of the help we can get.”

The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said after visiting Barbuda in October that “innovative financial mechanisms” would be needed to help people rebuild their lives. He added that middle-income countries such as Antigua and Barbuda could not do it alone.

“This is an obligation of the international community, because they are suffering the effects of climate change but they have not contributed to it,” he added.

Dominica-born Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland visited the island for its comeback independence celebrations in early November.

Baroness Scotland said after her visits to Dominica and to Barbuda that the Commonwealth’s Climate Finance Access Hub was working “with Dominica to get someone in as soon as possible to help create strong climate change projects which will attract funding”.

Another source of funding - global Official Development Assistance (ODA) – also came under focus as those Caribbean islands ranked as high income (the British Virgin Islands, Turks & Caicos and Anguilla) had been ineligible for such aid after the hurricanes.

The Commonwealth’s Baroness Scotland said: “I promised to do everything in my power to challenge rules that say a high-income but climate vulnerable country that has just lost all its economic sectors and its entire GDP to a hurricane is ineligible for Official Development Assistance (ODA). We have already seen progress on this after the UK intervened, with donor countries now committing to review the rules.”

The UK announced at the end of October that it had secured agreement from donor countries at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for work on a process to revise the ODA rules and allow affected territories to receive short-term ODA support.

“Build back better”

“Build back better” has become the mantra of the post-2017 hurricane damage, both in the Caribbean and across major global donor organisations.

Richard Branson used all the connections at hand to talk to the leaders of global finance bodies. His strategy for the Disaster Recovery Marshall Plan, which he has shaped in the wake of the storms, includes lower borrowing costs for climate-resilient projects. This would apply to projects such as replacing existing power grids in the region.

Mr Branson’s team have been pointing out that, even though his Necker Island home was devastated by Hurricane Irma, the wind project that provided its solar-powered micro grid said that the grid had survived and was restored 24 hours after the hurricane.

As the short-term work continued, Dominica’s Roosevelt Skerrit summed up his country’s job as short-term repair work and a long term strategy.

Announcing the setting up of a new Climate Change Resilient Institution to oversee this path, Prime Minister Skerrit told Dominicans at their 4 November independence celebrations that this work would include the rebuilding of schools and clinics in a “smart, climate-resilient way”, new bridges with water overflow facilities, a food security programme and underground cabling.

He said that 50% of funding had already been promised by the international community in early November.

Stating that Dominica would not just be “helpless victims” of natural disasters, the Dominican leader said that his aim to make his country the first climate-resilient nation in the world was not because Dominicans had chosen this message.

“The message found us,” the Dominican leader said.

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