Can you imagine a Caribbean minus its beaches? It's not science fiction, it’s climate change

September 5, 2014


The beachfront in Santo Domingo

  • Rising sea levels could have catastrophic effects for the Caribbean and would affect the poorest and most vulnerable in the region.
  • Santo Domingo could be the fifth most affected city in the world
  • To increase their resilience to climate change, the Caribbean is improving their ability to bring scientific evidence into the national development process

Nearly 15 years ago, a World Bank disaster risk management team went to the Caribbean island of St. Lucia to work at the beach -- literally. Based on scientific evidence, they set off, together with the government, to counter erosion and rebuild the beaches.  The result, the construction of two submerged offshore structures, designed to break up incoming waves and capture sand. Today, 15 meters of beach in the area have been restored.

This success story is part of an effort to tackle the Caribbean coastal erosion. Due to rising sea levels and recurring storms, most Caribbean nations have been seeing their beaches disappear. In some areas of St. Vincent, for instance, an estimated 18-30 meters of beach have been lost over the last nine years. The highly vulnerable coastal strand and adjacent towns are fighting against increased flood risk from rainfall and storm surge. 

The issue of challenges faced by small islands around the world was at the center of this week’s 3rd Small Island Developing States conference held in Samoa. The overarching theme of the conference was sustainable development in view of these states’ unique and particular vulnerabilities.

Back in the late 1990s, coastal erosion and beach losses were threatening a fishing village on the east coast of St. Lucia.  To address the issue, the World Bank, through the Emergency Recovery and Disaster Management Project (1998-2003), supported detailed scientific investigations to identify how nature was really behaving.  From those investigations, designs were developed not just to stop the erosion but to re-grow the beach. 

“You can’t fight nature, you must work together with it,” said Jerry Meier, a World Bank climate change expert.  Adding another level of science to the process, computer simulations were used to test the designs before embarking on their construction. “When the project first built the structures, you had to swim to get to the first barrier. Now, you can walk to it,” explained Meier.

And the beaches are not the only concern. Caribbean ports are also at risk from rising sea levels.  Built in colonial times, many sea ports, such as Castries, St. Lucia; St. Georges, Grenada; Kingstown, St Vincent, are suffering from the increasing threat of flooding, in part due to rising sea level.  In island states, ports are the economic heart of the country, typically the capital and the island center of commerce.

Airports too are affected.  Typically built in flat coastal areas, airports such as Melville Hall, Dominica; Maurice Bishop, Grenada; and Hewannorrah, St Lucia, are dealing with increased flood risk and sea level rise.

" You can’t fight nature, you must work together with it. "

Jerry Meier

World Bank Climate Change Expert

These rising sea levels affect islands big and small.  A study by the World Bank states that if the sea continues to rise at the current rate, Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, will be one on the five cities most affected at a global level by climate change in 2050 (after Alexandria, Barranquilla, Naples and Sapporo).

Coasts are vital for the region’s economy and population. Seventy percent of the Caribbean population lives on the coast. Almost all the Caribbean’s main cities, with their millions of inhabitants and their essentials infrastructures, are less than a mile from the coast – including highly vulnerable cities such as Port-au-Prince, Haiti and Havana, Cuba.

What’s more, most Caribbean nations rely on their coasts for a large percentage of economic activity. Last year, 25 million tourists visited the Caribbean. In St. Lucia, for instance, tourism accounts for over 60 percent of GDP.

 One key concern, of course, is the effect of this phenomenon on people. In Santo Domingo, for instance, the poorest are already affected by flooding. Many live along the edge of the Ozama River and on its floodplain. Rising sea level, contributing to higher storm surge, coupled with potentially heavier rains, hurricanes and other natural hazards caused by climate change, would make those people even more vulnerable.

 The Dominican Republic is already taking action to face this great challenge, but there is still much to be done.  Under the World Bank Noel-Olga Emergency Recovery Project, significant investment has been made in the national hydromet instrument network to improve water resources management, data collection and analysis to inform island development strategies.

“To improve risk reduction, greater quantification of the risk of sea level rise and watershed behavior is required,” said Meier. “That is particularly crucial in the low lying river areas of Santo Domingo where many low income people live,” he added.

In Bávaro, where the famous tourist destination of Punta Cana is located, on top of the loss of beaches there is a concern with loss of fresh water supply. In that area, drinking water is extracted from wells in the coastal plain.  This is a sandy area where rainwater soaks into the ground where it floats on top of saltwater that rises and falls with the tide.  As sea level rises, the freshwater layer becomes thinner and more susceptible to saltwater contamination through a process known as saltwater intrusion.  Once contaminated, well water needs to be treated with costly advanced technologies, such as reverse osmosis, in order to make it fit for drinking again.

This problem is not unique to the Dominican Republic.  Many islands in the Caribbean face the problem of salt-water infiltration into its freshwater. This is particularly true in the low lying islands such as the Bahamas, Tortugas, Antigua and similar islands. The region relies heavily on rain water to refresh its freshwater reserves, which are threatened by a rise in global sea levels. As the sea levels rise it increases the risk of salty water infiltrating freshwater sources, which, are already drying up because of poor land use practices and steadily increasing demand. If they don’t act quickly, many countries face the possibility of having to finance the costly process of desalination.

To improve their climate resilience, that is to say the Caribbean’s ability to resist and adapt to the effects of climate change, the World Bank produced a series of recommendations:

Social: Poor and vulnerable people will be the most affected by a global sea level rise. Land planning needs to be incorporated more into social programs to tackle how exposed they are to risk.

Economic: Any preventive system needs to establish an economic recovery and diversification plan following a disaster.

Environmental: More investment in scientific data collection and flood controls, which don’t damage the environment, are needed as preparation for changes in rainfall volume and frequency.

Risks: Land planning and watershed management have the potential to contribute to risk management in coastal cities and promote more compact cities, something that could reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses, as well as protecting people who live in high-risk areas.