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Facing up to disasters

By Ronald Sanders

The extent of the damage and human suffering on the island of St Vincent caused by unprecedented rainfall and flooding over the Christmas holiday period is much greater than originally estimated.
When the full assessment is done, it appears that costs will amount to between 15 and 17 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
The seriousness of the damage and the real likelihood that such disasters will recur with greater frequency and intensity strongly point to the necessity of two actions. First, individual Caribbean countries and Caricom countries as a whole should establish disaster funds from which affected territories can draw for immediate rehabilitation of infrastructure and restoration of homes for the poorest. Second, every Caribbean country should push for the expansion of the size of resources for entities such as the Commonwealth Disaster Management Agency (CDMA) and the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF) run by the World Bank.
In the case of CCRIF, the latest public figures show that it has a claims-paying capacity of US$132.5 million. This is a small sum in relation to the damage on St Vincent and the Grenadines alone. When St Lucia and Dominica—two islands that were also affected by the Christmas holiday flooding—are added to the equation, the insurance money available to affected countries becomes even smaller.
In his budget statement to the St Vincent and the Grenadines parliament, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves provided a graphic picture of the disaster on St Vincent. He said over 11,000 persons or over ten per cent of the population were directly affected, and by December 31 over 50,000 persons, or roughly 50 per cent of the population were still adversely affected by extensive disruption of water supplies.
He also explained the extensive and “huge” damage to physical infrastructure, including 14 bridges destroyed; 14 bridges severely damaged; several miles of secondary roads and feeder roads ravaged; forests substantially denuded; and 662 houses damaged or destroyed. The prime minister put the aggregate cost at over US$120 million.
Prime Minister Gonsalves also stated that an international donors’ conference is being proposed to be held within the next three months to receive pledges for the rehabilitation and recovery processes in the three affected countries.
Additionally, governments will apply to international agencies for loans to start rebuilding programmes. But it will be months before loan applications can be made in conformity with the requirements of the agencies so that they can be appraised and approved for disbursement. In the meantime, the three islands are forced to cope as best they can.
In this connection, Prime Minister Gonsalves has shown creativity and imagination in mobilising between US$13.4 million and US$19.0 million in new monies, of which he told his country’s parliament he has already assembled US$11 million.
In the final analysis, the effects of climate change are now defying prediction and preparedness. At the same time as there was exceptional rainfall and flooding in the islands of St Vincent, St Lucia, and Dominica, there was a massive ice storm in Canada that left 250,000 homes without electricity and heating in temperatures at minus 20 and below; Britain was battered by storms that affected over 150,000 homes; and there was snow in Cairo.
It is now reasonable to assume that disasters will come suddenly and devastatingly. Therefore, preparation now calls for the unexpected.
Unlike Britain and Canada, disasters in small islands are comprehensive in their effects on people and economies. And, unlike places like Britain and Canada, small islands do not have the capacity and resources to bounce back - to restore infrastructure swiftly and to recover from economic losses.
That is why small countries need access to funds that are immediate. The bulk of such funds ought to be grants or loans on the softest terms. This is also why, as soon as their economies are capable of it, Caribbean countries should collectively design their own disaster fund in addition to the existing Commonwealth and World Bank disaster insurance schemes.
Five hours was all that it took to wreak havoc on St Vincent. The prime minister is right to look beyond the “provisional” and “temporising” to strengthening his country’s socio-economic base for recovery and reconstruction. Others in the region should do so too.
• Sir Ronald Sanders is a consultant senior research fellow at London University and former Caribbean diplomat
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