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FEATURE STORY September 13, 2018

Small yet strong: the Caribbean embraces the quest for resilience

A year ago, hurricanes Irma and Maria wreaked havoc in the Caribbean, making small nations like Dominica lose more than 200% of its annual GDP in a matter of hours. Today, many countries are still rebuilding. With the threats of climate change – which increases the number and strength of extreme weather events – and another hurricane season already underway, these countries are undertaking a number of efforts.

The first of them, building resilient infrastructure; the second, enabling citizens to start over with better jobs and opportunities; third, doing it all while recovering economically.

None of these are easy tasks, but citizens like Augustus Benjamin, from Dominica, are hopeful. “Step by step, Dominica will be back on top. We are getting there,” says Benjamin, who had his house and garden destructed by Hurricane Maria, and now runs a shelter where his friends and family have lived ever since.

He is optimistic because he sees recovery efforts everywhere: roads, hotels and buildings are little by little being reconstructed to fit new standards that will make them more resistant.

Currently, the World Bank Group is supporting Caribbean countries with nearly US$2 billion focused on strengthening resilience and financial protection against disasters. In addition to financing, what will it take for the region to withstand the next storms? Here are some answers.

Investing in preparedness

Identifying and communicating risk is the first step in effectively managing disaster risk. “Risk modelling and disaster risk financing strategies, for example, allow decision-makers to make policy and planning decisions ahead of time,” wrote Tahseen Sayed, World Bank director for the Caribbean, in this blog. Together with the ministry of finance of Belize, Grenada, Jamaica and Saint Lucia, cost-effective tailored strategies have been designed to help each country improve their resilience to natural disasters.

Early warning systems are especially important, she adds: “They make it possible for people and organizations to prepare for impacts. While warnings cannot avoid all casualties and emergencies, they can save lives, reduce suffering and prevent economic losses.”

Protecting the vulnerable

When a hurricane strikes, it is often the poorest that suffer the most, because they have less savings to mitigate the shock. In addition, most of them earn a living from agriculture or fisheries, which are greatly impacted. They also have less access to credit, are less likely to be insured, and usually have poor family and friends, which means their social support networks is limited. 

“Adaptive” safety nets – social protection programs like cash transfers or public works programs that can be scaled up after a disaster – may help them start over. With World Bank support, countries like Dominica and Sint Maarten are working to make social protection systems more efficient and identify the most vulnerable populations in post disaster situations. In Sint Maarten, 1,800 under-employed and unemployed people will receive skills-training in exchange for a stipend over the next 18 months.

Building better and stronger infrastructure

Reconstruction is an opportunity to identify less vulnerable areas – with less risk of flooding, for example – and build structures that can resist disasters. The new roads, bridges, and electric grids should be able to withstand the next storms.

“This is particularly important for islands located in the ‘hurricane corridor’, including Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica and Sint Maarten, where critical infrastructure such as hospitals, airports, roads and utility networks were severely damaged. Functioning utility networks of electricity, water and telecom are essential to help communities recover faster from disasters,” wrote Tahseen Sayed.

Saving more for the next storm

Last year’s record number of high-intensity hurricanes showed countries that, if they build resilience to shocks, they won’t lose in a matter of hours what took years to achieve. Both Grenada and Jamaica have been the first among Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries to adopt fiscal rules aiming to open fiscal space, reduce borrowing costs and public debt. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Saint Lucia are also embarking on reforms to build fiscal resilience.

Following the 2017 hurricanes, eight Caribbean countries have also received payouts amounting to more than US$50 million from the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility CCRIF SPC, a regional risk pooling mechanism that provide member countries with immediate liquidity to respond quickly to disasters. 

Protecting the ocean and other natural resources

Many of the Caribbean islands have much more space around them than on their actual territory. For instance, Saint Lucia has seven times more space at sea than on land, and Eastern Caribbean countries are now finding new ways to generate jobs and growth from the islands’ rich and abundant natural capital.

“This means ensuring a proper management of natural resources and creating enabling conditions for private investment in ocean industries. It also means building ‘blue green’ infrastructure such as a port using natural mangrove barriers; and supporting small and medium ocean enterprises to generate ‘blue jobs’,” says Tahseen Sayed.

Natural defenses, such as mangroves and coral reefs, also play a key role in protecting coastal areas against hurricanes, and countries such as Belize are expanding and consolidating marine protected areas to repopulate coral reefs. As a result, the Belize Barrier Reef, the largest barrier reef system in the Northern Hemisphere, was recently removed from the United Nations list of endangered world heritage sites.

This and other initiatives show that building resilience in the region will take a lot of effort, but the Caribbean nations are aware of this challenge and have fully embraced it.