AS Guyana welcomes home her nationals from The Bahamas who have been displaced by Hurricane Dorian, it is a good time to reflect on the vulnerability of our Caribbean to natural disasters. Coming on the heels of a similar devastation of Dominica, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico two years ago by Hurricane Maria, this destruction of The Bahamas must be a wake-up call for a Region that has come to regard hurricanes as part of its reality. While small states around the world have had to grapple with the vulnerabilities that come with small size and populations, our Region has had to confront the added challenge of its vulnerability to natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes.
The first big lesson for The Bahamas and the Caribbean is the human suffering. The loss in human terms is staggering for the small islands that were directly hit. As we write this editorial, the death toll of 50 is expected to rise as more than 1,000 persons are still unaccounted for. Entire neighbourhoods in the affected islands have been virtually flattened with preliminary reports of over 1400 houses destroyed. It means that homelessness has become the order with thousands of residents living in tents.
This harrowing tale has become familiar to the Caribbean. One remembers the “tent cities” in Haiti that remained in place long after the earthquake that battered that country a decade ago. As is evident in the case of The Bahamas, while all social classes suffer in these tragedies, it is the poor who are worst affected. The neighbourhoods that suffer the most in The Bahamas were those inhabited by Haitian migrants who lived in substandard housing. So, there is a linkage between poverty and vulnerability to natural disasters.
The second lesson is that the outcomes of these disasters are regional. Although a single island may be directly affected, given the intra-regional migration and settlement patterns, other countries in the Region are drawn into the post-disaster efforts. Often, countries have to bear the cost of evacuating their nationals while committing resources to the affected island; this scenario has been in full flow in the aftermath of Dorian’s hit on The Bahamas.
A third lesson to be drawn in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian is the clear and present danger of global warming. It is clear that the oceans are getting warmer and this in turn is causing an increase in the ferociousness of hurricanes. When one considers that the Caribbean is not the origination of this man-made malady, then the larger question of the linkage between economic vulnerability and vulnerability to natural disasters comes to the fore.
The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez puts it in clear perspective: “It is clear that this acceleration is very much linked to human activity, triggering climate change and of course The Bahamas are not contributing much to climate change…So this solidarity is absolutely essential, and the international community needs to be able to express it very strongly.”
Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, was also on target as she makes the case on behalf of the Caribbean. As she argues “We are on the frontline of the consequences of climate change, but we don’t cause it…And the vulnerability that attaches therefore to us is a matter we’re trying to get the international community to deal with consistently…People say the words and hear you, but they don’t follow through so that I have every confidence. Now that the last few years are beginning to show others that frontline states, whether it’s an island in the Caribbean or states in the U.S. or cities, all of us who are continuously being affected have to recognise that this doesn’t happen out of the blue.”
The big question, then, that flows from the prime minister’s comments, is whether Caribbean countries, poor as the countries are, should be expected to bear the costs of disaster preparedness and the rescue and rebuilding efforts on their own. In the first place, these countries are more vulnerable precisely because of their economic status—they cannot afford the cost associated with proper disaster preparedness. It is high time that the more economically developed countries bear their fair share of the responsibilities for this global crisis.
This view is shared by the United Nations Secretary-General : “We need to stop climate change, we need to make sure that we reverse the present trend when climate change is running faster than we are, and second, that countries like The Bahamas that do not contribute to climate change — but are in the first line of the devastating impacts of climate change — deserve international support, to be able to fully respond to the humanitarian emergency, but also for the reconstruction and the building resilience of the communities on the islands.”