Developing, strengthening resilience base of Caribbean paramount – CARICOM SG tells Comprehensive Disaster Management Conference

CARICOM Secretary-General, Dr. Carla Barnett addresses the opening of the Conference
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CARICOM Secretary-General Dr. Carla Barnett has identified the strengthening of early warning systems, and investing in resilient public infrastructure among the measures that must be taken in the Region’s climate crisis response.

Developing capacity in indigenous climate climate science for accurate regional models, forecasts and attribution of impacts; improving our relationship with nature; integrating risk management in planning and implementation across economy and society; and meaningfully engaging young people at all levels of resilience planning, were among the other areas the Secretary-General highlighted.

Dr. Barnett was at the time delivering remarks at the opening of the 12th Caribbean Conference on Comprehensive Disaster Management (CDM) in Bridgetown, Barbados which she said is designed to allow science and on the ground experiences to furnish decision-makers with the tools to continue to improve the systems-approach to resilience. The Conference is the premier event of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA). It is being held under the theme: CDM Road To Resilience: Checkpoint 2022 – Advancing A Risk-Based Multi-Hazard Approach During Covid-19 And Beyond.

In her remarks, the Secretary-General drew attention to the “staggering” and “deleterious” impacts of climate-related naturals disasters in the Caribbean. She pointed to the 40 tropical cyclones, 12 of which attained hurricane strength, and eight of which were classified as major hurricanes that resulted in loss of life and property and damage to infrastructure. Six Caribbean states, she said, are ranked in the “top 10 most disaster-prone countries in the world and all are in the top 50.” She also shared aspects of the economic impact the Region has felt recently and which underline the need for climate and disaster resilience-building, including:

  • 100% crop loss, 226% GDP loss, 3.5 times GDP as various metrics of loss and damage are accounted for in the aftermath of a hurricane’s path through the Region;
  • EC$0.6 billion in losses and damages from the volcanic eruption and associated hazards in 2020, from which St. Vincent and the Grenadines is still recovering.

“In addition to the natural disasters, several of our economic sectors continue to remain under threat from slow-onset climate impacts.  Droughts and saltwater intrusion consequent to sea level rise threaten water resources, requiring significant investments to ensure a safe water supply in the Region. Higher temperatures, pests and more frequent droughts and flooding events are increasing crop loss and undermining the Region’s food security,” the Secretary-General said.

Please read the Secretary-General’s remarks below:

It is my pleasure to greet you in this Opening Ceremony of the 12th Caribbean Conference on Comprehensive Disaster Management.  I am glad I am able to be here in person, since earlier arrangements would have had me leaving Barbados yesterday evening. But plans changed allowing me to come to the opening of this important forum.

We have endured a tumultuous few years in the Caribbean: 

  • According to recent reporting from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), 88% of disasters since 2020 in the Caribbean have been climate-related;
  • The evidence of climate change is no longer only in the graphs and figures, but we now feel it in our lives worldwide;
  • We have also experienced devastating earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and extreme seasonal floods;
  • In this Region we have dealt with the impacts of COVID-19 that have permeated all corners of our economies and society;
  • Several global supply chain shocks continue to fuel inflation; and there is real concern that a global recession is looming in  2023.

The Caribbean has been affected by forty (40) tropical cyclones, of which twelve (12) attained hurricane strength, eight (8) were classified as major hurricanes which produced flooding, landslides, damage to infrastructure and housing, dislocation, and loss of life and property. Six (6) Caribbean States are ranked in the top ten most disaster-prone countries in the world and all are in the top 50.  You, at CDEMA and your colleagues across the region, know the details of this reality better than I ever could.

In addition to the natural disasters, several of our economic sectors continue to remain under threat from slow-onset climate impacts.  Droughts and saltwater intrusion consequent to sea level rise threaten water resources, requiring significant investments to ensure a safe water supply in the Region. Higher temperatures, pests and more frequent droughts and flooding events are increasing crop loss and undermining the Region’s food security. 

Natural disasters and the pandemic, as single occurrences, have been devastating for CARICOM States. The compounded impacts have stretched our human and financial resources to their fullest extent. Our regional disaster response mechanism has been called into action all year around with little or no respite, even before the hurricane season. 

Meanwhile, current projections point to a 10% increase of greenhouse gases by 2030. This has strengthened the resolve of our leaders to advocate for higher ambition and increased financing flows by the highest emitters, to allow the most vulnerable states to adequately adapt to and mitigate the impact of climate change with requisite resilience strategies.

CARICOM returned from COP27 with a mix of optimism and some disillusionment.  For the first time, loss and damage was substantively discussed as a dedicated agenda item, leading to agreement on the institutional and operational arrangement of the Santiago Network for Loss and Damage, which focuses on technical assistance and knowledge sharing for reducing losses and damage.  This is a victory for those on the front lines of disaster risk reduction (DRR). 

The primary goal of CARICOM in this regard, however, was to advocate and evoke from the largest emitters a greater commitment to increase needed ambition to reduce emissions and a more positive and timely reaction on financial support to states suffering the greatest loss and damage from climate change, despite contributing very little to the problem.

We continue then to plan for the worst, while praying for the best.  It is the nature of what we do in disaster risk reduction.  In my remarks for CDEMA’s 30th Anniversary last year, I noted that CDEMA is the entire system and not just the Coordinating Unit.  Likewise, each and every participant in this Conference embodies the CDM mission of strengthening capacity, readiness and resilience in participating states. 

CARICOM Heads of Government, in 2019, had set the tone for a resilience-underpinned development trajectory of the Community when they articulated the Resilience Agenda.  This was a recognition that regardless of economic profile, each Member State knows that sustained and sustainable growth is not possible without climate and disaster resilience-building.  The evidence is all too clear.  We have witnessed in our Member States in the past decade:

  • 100% crop loss, 226% GDP loss, 3.5 times GDP as various metrics of loss and damage are accounted for in the aftermath of a hurricane’s path through the Region;
  • EC$0.6 billion in losses and damages from the volcanic eruption and associated hazards in 2020, from which St. Vincent and the Grenadines is still recovering.

These impacts are staggering and deleterious to societies and economies, while slow onset impact and repeated annual losses from floods have eroded development gains and undermined debt reduction efforts.

So, here we are at ‘checkpoint 2022’ of the Comprehensive Disaster Management implementation period, faced with a multiplicity of hazard scenarios that were indeed planned for, but for which the scale and frequency have undoubtedly exceeded expectations.  It is important now to harness this forum, which has been designed to allow science and on-the-ground experiences to furnish decision-makers with the tools to continue to improve the systems-approach to resilience that is CDM.

Given the trajectory of the climate crisis response and the projections of the scientists, the successful and complete implementation of the CDM strategy is paramount to developing and strengthening the resilience base of our Caribbean society, to enable us to steady ourselves through each natural disaster and global economic shock. 

We must therefore continue to develop capacity in indigenous climate science for accurate regional models, forecasts and attribution of impacts.

We must continue to strengthen early warning systems to the last mile to allow all people – including women and girls, the elderly, and other vulnerable persons – to make early and informed decisions for preservation of life and assets.

We must increase investment in resilient public infrastructure designed to last, and shelters designed and planned to preserve life, and maintain human dignity for all.  This is a costly but critical priority. The increasing frequency and ferocity of natural disasters means that the costs of investment infrastructure – shelters, roads and bridges, housing – are also increasing.  Building codes have to be constantly strengthened and engineering designs for roads and bridges are taking into account increased provisions for both slow onset events and hurricanes.  These are the costly realities we are facing.

We also need to continue to do our part to improve our relationship with nature by reducing our own stresses on our ecosystems and biodiversity. Coral Reefs are among the first ecosystems we stand to lose to climate change and are among the most critical to our economies and societies. Our forests are critical to maintaining the integrity of our river systems and reducing the impact of flooding events on our coastlines.  We therefore will need to continue to plan to minimize our impact on nature, even as we call on the highest emitters to do the right thing – to reduce emissions to allow those of us, who bear the greatest of burden of the impact climate change, to survive.

Underlying all of this is the need to move forward by integrating risk management in all our planning and implementation across our economy and society, taking account of the needs of all people, especially those at the margin, who carry the greatest risk of loss of life and livelihoods.

I urge you to integrate consistent and meaningful engagement of young people at all levels of resilience planning. I am therefore really happy to see young people attending this conference and urge that this be continued. Youth perspectives play a key role in forward planning and reducing the likelihood of policy gaps and in building sustainability. Inter-generational planning requires this.  

Dear Colleagues, Partners and Friends,

Take advantage of CDM12 as a platform for innovating solutions, building partnerships and increasing capacity.  The road to resilience is long and arduous, and often feels like more miles are constantly being added, but through our partnerships and solidarity we forge ahead with the safety and well-being of our fellow citizens and future generations firmly in our sights. 

Thank you and I wish you every success in this Conference and beyond.

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