Dorian's lessons for us in the Caribbean

Dorian's lessons for us in the Caribbean

Friday, September 13, 2019

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The Caribbean Partners' Forum, convened jointly by the Government of Jamaica and the United Nations, and which was held here in Kingston on September 11, created a space for regional stakeholders to consider new solutions to the dreadful threat posed by climate change. It could not have come at a more poignant moment.

Last week, Hurricane Dorian reminded us that the rules of the game have changed. Storms are not only more frequent and powerful these days, they also do new things — like accelerating suddenly from category 2 to category 5 in a matter of hours. That situation becomes worse when, as was the case with Dorian and The Bahamas, the hurricane sits atop a country, prolonging its devastating effects.

We are glad that our Government is aware of the World Bank estimate that one dollar invested in protecting infrastructure is worth several times more than investing that same dollar in an insurance policy. Insurance is good, but will never be enough, so we have to make our infrastructure stronger.

The Bahamas's hurricane insurance will pay out US$11 million, but it is worth pointing out that there are many aspects of the damage that cannot be covered by insurance. Most public infrastructure, for instance, cannot be insured at viable rates.

And while most vulnerable private citizens cannot afford insurance, the rich will have to face the fact that property values will be reduced by the clear message that beachfront lots come with high risks and that new construction will have to be even stronger, and therefore much more expensive.

Of course, we acknowledge that many countries in this region do not have the financial resources to foot the enormous cost of recovery after hurricanes. However, Caribbean governments, we hold, have very little choice than bolstering the integrity of our disaster mitigation systems, even as climate change impacts the ferocity of weather events.

The devastation that Hurricane Dorian unleashed on two islands in the north-western Bahamas proved just that.

We recall that Prime Minister Andrew Holness was invited by the United Nations to join French President Emmanual Macron to lead an international initiative to mobilise funds to help small-island states finance the massive cost of making our infrastructure climate-proof. In this era of a worldwide resurgence of nationalism grant funds are increasingly scarce, so vulnerable countries must also seek their own solutions.

Importantly, it is vital for Jamaicans to realise that gross domestic product (GDP) is not useful to measure how well an economy is doing following a major disaster. Most people do not realise that it does not include destruction of productive and social infrastructure. That means that the GDP of The Bahamas could actually show a positive jump despite heavy loss of life and extensive infrastructure damage on two of the most heavily populated islands in the archipelago.

It is time for us to wake up and spend some effort to build new ways to assess the risks to our Caribbean economies and to realise the time has come for us to decide which sacrifices we must make to ensure we have a future in this new era of natural disasters.

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