Part of the Haitian coastline in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. Photo: UNOCHA/Stefania Trassari
By Robert Glasser
Geneva, 20 September 2017 - Two years ago this month, Tropical Storm Erika, dumped an enormous quantity of rain on the small island of Dominica in the Caribbean.
The night-time event took the country by surprise. There were 31 deaths, and, by one estimate, 200 landslides. The main airport was severely damaged.
The most long-lasting effect on Dominica’s 72,000 people was the estimated economic losses of US$ 500 million, roughly equivalent to its entire GDP for one year.
Tropical Storm Erika had wind speeds of 85 kilometres per hour and did not directly hit the island. By contrast, Hurricane Maria swept across it on Monday evening full of fury with wind speeds of 265 kilometres per hour and much rain.
Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, who had to be rescued by police from his flooded and roofless home on Tuesday, fears the worse now in terms of injury and possible loss of life.
Following what he vividly described as “an avalanche of torn-away roofs,” the economic cost of recovery and building back better would be ruinous without international assistance.
This is the reality facing many communities living in exposed Small Island Developing States (SIDS) from the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean. The forced abandonment of Barbuda in the Caribbean following Hurricane Irma, after 300 years of continuous human occupation, is a cruel reminder of the vulnerability of these low-lying outposts of civilisation.
Development can never be sustainable if it is at continual risk of being destroyed by disasters.
Since 1980, the economic loss risk due to floods has increased by over 160% and to tropical cyclones by 265%. For many countries, the risk of losing wealth in weather-related disasters is growing faster than GDP per capita.
Given their small size, the expected annual average losses from tropical cyclone wind damage in SIDS represents a fraction of the global total but in the case of a catastrophic one-in-250 year event, six of the top ten countries that would suffer the highest percentage losses of GDP are SIDS.
This seems to be borne out by events so far in this year’s Atlantic Hurricane season which has been marked by a series of catastrophically strong storm systems.
The losses and impacts that characterise disasters usually have as much to do with the exposure and vulnerability of capital stock as with the severity of the hazard event.
The question is how can we make SIDS more resilient and reduce the numbers of people affected by disasters if the risk continues to be ratcheted up by the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the world’s weather.
SIDS are more vulnerable to disasters because many are heavily indebted, their economies are undiversified and hazard events often affect the whole territory.
The magnifying effect of climate change includes sea level rise and associated flood and storm surge hazard, increasing cyclone wind intensity such as many Caribbean islands have already experienced this month, erosion, saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers, water scarcity and drought.
In the face of climate change, to which these islands contribute negligibly, the resilience gap is only going to grow unless there is investment which reduces the existing stock of risk, and strong policies are in place to ensure that new risk is not created through poorly informed or under-resourced investments in areas like tourism, education, health facilities, transport links and public utilities.
Low resilience and high risk mean that investments in disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation are likely to reap significant benefits for SIDS. Once this Atlantic hurricane season ends, there must be a reflection on how best to take the resilience agenda forward to the benefit of the people of these island states.