Building climate resilience in Jamaica


Building climate resilience in Jamaica

Pearnel Charles JR

Sunday, November 29, 2020

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In the two months since I have entered office as minister of the new and dynamic Ministry of Housing, Urban Renewal, Environment and Climate Change (MHURECC), 13 storms have been named during this Atlantic Hurricane Season, equalling the average number of named storms per season over the past 50 years.

Recently, the 13th storm of the year, Iota, was named — exceeding the record of 28 storms set in 2005 — the year of Hurricane Katrina, and outpacing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) prediction of 19 storm events this year.

Closer to home, on the heels of a drought-ridden summer, the latter part of this year's hurricane season has brought rainfall events that are more intense and more frequent, with landslides resulting in the loss of life and with devastating destruction of crops in a year when the agricultural sector has already been hard hit by the economic impacts of the pandemic.

History is replete with examples of infrastructure projects which emerge in response to significant natural events. In the wake of the devastation left by Hurricane Charlie in 1951, the Government of the day established the Hurricane Housing Organisation (HHO) to provide relief and rebuild houses — many of which were left either inundated or flattened by the sheer force of the storm. Following Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) was established — this was a critical step in institutionalising disaster response systems. We are compelled to learn well the lessons of history.

This year, Jamaica has been thus far spared direct impact from any storm, but our close brushes with the outer bands of Zeta, Eta and now Iota have exposed our extreme vulnerability to the harsh impact of climate variability and the urgent need to increase our resilience in all sectors. In the past five years, we have seen consecutively the warmest year on record and declared an islandwide drought. Our meteorological experts anticipate that in the next few years, these droughts will last even longer and become more intense. At the other extreme, as sea surface temperatures grow warmer, and rainfall patterns are expected to intensify — we therefore anticipate seeing more intense weather events, sudden and heavy downpours, and even extended hurricane seasons.

More and more, the unprecedented is the norm. How then do we adapt to the increasingly adverse impacts of climate change?

These global challenges have dire consequences on us as a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) and demand a synergistic approach. This is the mandate of the new and dynamic MHURECC.

MHURECC's challenge is to design a comprehensive framework and promote policies and programmes that balance the built and the natural environment towards the development of a climate-resilient society.

Meteorological Service

This begins with the agencies like the Meteorological Service, working on the front lines of climate action in Jamaica, providing the data that enables us to adequately prepare for and mitigate the impact of storms and other weather events. Undoubtedly, the application of technological innovation, empirical information and evidence-based analysis is critical to building climate resilience.

A generation ago, we did not have the benefit of preparing for extreme weather events weeks in advance. Out of indigenous knowledge, people would observe changes in the colours in the sky and wind conditions and monitor the behaviour of animals to anticipate development of weather systems. In 1963, Jamaica became a member of the World Meteorological Organization; that opened up access to the satellite technology of the day. By the 1970s, Jamaica's weather monitoring activities relied on the intermittent passage of polar orbiting satellites to pass over Jamaica in order to capture the latest image of cloud conditions and detect systems in the area.

Throughout the 1980s, the Meteorological Service used a mechanical radar system that was able to forecast rainfall but could not predict rainfall intensities and movements as accurate as the current available technologies that are accessible today. Back then, manual rain gauges were used across the country to collect rainfall volume; today, we can now measure rainfall with more variables and in more places that can provide information in real time.

Our meteorological systems have come a far way since then, with significant technological advances that provide quicker and more accurate responses to the threat of impending storms, allowing us to save more lives.

In March 2020, the new Doppler Radar System, valued at approximately US$3 million, was purchased by the Government of Jamaica through the Improving Climate Change Data and Information project to be installed at the Meteorological Station at Cooper's Hill, St Andrew. It will allow meteorology experts to detect movement and intensities of rainfall and improve early warning systems. It will also enable improved forecasting in the short term, significantly advance Jamaica's data collection efforts and increase the predictive capabilities of the Met Service — all of which are critical to managing climate impacts. The Doppler Radar will replace the existing system.

Importantly, the Meteorological Service is leveraging the strategic value of advanced technology to bolster climate resilience. They will soon introduce a weather app and develop a new index using climate data to predict bush fires across the island during dry periods. These projects are being supported by funding from the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) under the 'Building Resilience Through Climate Adaptation Technologies' (BRETCAT) programme.

This year, Jamaica celebrates 25 years of climate action, and progressive leadership in the region and the international community — from our participation in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in 1995, to the integration of climate sensitive policies in our National Development Plan Vision 2030 in 2009, the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2016 and our recognition as co-leaders in climate finance alongside Qatar and France in 2019.

As we face the next 25 years, we know that none of our plans can be achieved without all hands on deck from all sectors: the Government as representatives of the resilient people of Jamaica, the private sector, NGOs and our global partners.

Moving forward, we must further enhance the integration of mitigation and adaptation measures, advance progressive legislation, policies and partnerships and increase public awareness in the way we build and develop resilient and sustainable communities. We will also build our capacity to develop strategies to reduce our impact on the environment and encourage the active participation of all Jamaicans as we work to build a climate-resilient society and secure Jamaica's future.

Pearnel Charles Jr, an attorney-at-law, is Minister of Housing, Urban Renewal, Environment and Climate Change. Send responses to:

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