Mention of the names Harvey, Irma and Maria in the same conversation will long stoke bitter and painful memories of death, destruction loss and despair, especially in the countries that were directly affected. Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, British Virgin Islands, Dominica, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin/Saint Maarten, Turks and Caicos Islands were the Caribbean territories that bore the brunt of these hurricanes. Harvey deposited record precipitation in parts of Texas while Maria impacted Florida. It is worth noting that these two continental regions are collectively home to a sizeable segment of the Caribbean diaspora.
According to climate projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other sources, more intense storms and other weather events such as droughts are likely to occur in coming decades. Therefore, if this will be the “new normal”, we will have to expect such events in the future as a result of climate change. Climate-change-related hazards, including hurricanes, rising temperatures, changes in precipitation, sea level rise, flooding and elevated storm surges hold the potential to cause ever-greater harm.
Each year, on 13th October, the global community observes the International Day for Disaster Reduction (IDDR). Observance of this day started in 1989, following a call by the United Nations General Assembly for a day to promote a global culture of risk-awareness and disaster reduction. IDDR is therefore intended to take account of the ways in which people and communities around the world endeavour to reduce their exposure to disasters and raise awareness about the importance of managing the related risks that confront them.
This year, 2017, the designated IDDR theme is “Reducing the number of affected people.” This theme is an abbreviation of the second global target of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, which is to “Substantially reduce the number of affected people globally by 2030, aiming to lower the average global figure per 100,000 in the decade 2020–2030 compared to the period 2005–2015.”
In light of the 2017 IDDR theme and of the recent disasters that have affected the Caribbean, we need to take urgent action to reduce the number of people in the region who stand to be affected by hurricanes or any other disaster. This will prove challenging when existing and new or emerging hazards are juxtaposed against growing regional populations and increasing population density, especially in coastal areas. However, there is much that can be done:
- Using weather-related events as an example, one of the key strategies that can be employed is to keep track of the latest scientific findings on climate science and to use this as the empirical basis for making decisions on reducing climate risk and building resilience in natural and human systems. This must of course be supported by ongoing research and systematic observation, as well as short-term forecasting, which predicts and tracks actual weather-related events.
- Effective spatial planning can also make a significant contribution to reducing overall exposure and, ultimately, the number of people affected. Possible measures include limiting construction in flood- and landslide-prone areas; and enforcing coastal setbacks to reduce the impact of storm surge. However, good spatial planning, although essential, is insufficient, in and of itself and must be accompanied by proper building practices, such as the use of hurricane straps to better secure roofs. Similarly, critical infrastructure must be designed and constructed to meet standards that will allow them to withstand the weather extremes that we are expected to face in the future.
- Managing natural systems will be essential to reducing the impact of climate change on Caribbean populations. Protecting forested areas, for example, will reduce the occurrence of landslides, while helping to ensure the availability of water in the aftermath of a hurricane. Similarly, sustainably managing coral reefs and mangals will help to protect vulnerable coastlines from storm surge and erosion.
At the heart of reducing the number of persons affected will be educating our people and keeping them informed. Education is critical to shaping or re-shaping behaviours while the ongoing sharing of information is needed to ensure, among others, that people are aware of the latest knowledge and that they can be prepared for impending events. In particular, it is incumbent on government, civil society and other actors to focus on improving communications on disaster risk reduction to enable the most at-risk communities to anticipate, withstand, adapt to, and recover quickly from, disasters.
The lessons taught by the recent hurricanes are still fresh and the road to recovery will be long and painful. However, wherever the opportunity presents itself, we should seek to “build back better” and to take all measures possible to increase our resilience at the local, national and regional levels.