The extent of the damage and human suffering on the island of St Vincent caused by unprecedented rainfall and flooding over the Christmas holiday period is much greater than originally estimated. When the full assessment is done, it appears that costs will amount to between 15 and 17 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
In any country in the world, losses totalling between 15 and 17 per cent of GDP is a grave blow, but for small islands which lack the productive capacity and resilience to bounce back, the effect is even more severe.
The seriousness of the damage and the real likelihood that such disasters will reoccur with greater frequency and intensity strongly points to the necessity of two actions. Individual Caribbean countries and Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries as a whole should establish Disaster Funds from which affected territories can draw for immediate rehabilitation of infrastructure and restoration of homes for the poorest, and every Caribbean country should push for the expansion of the size of resources for entities such as the Commonwealth Disaster Management Agency (CDMA) and the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF) run by the World Bank.
In the case of CCRIF the latest public figures show that it has a claims-paying capacity of US$132.5 million. This is a small sum in relation to the damage on St Vincent and the Grenadines alone. When St Lucia and Dominica – two islands that were also affected by the Christmas holidays flooding – are added to the equation, the available insurance money available to affected countries becomes even smaller.
In his Budget statement to the St Vincent and the Grenadines Parliament, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves provided a graphic picture of the disaster on St Vincent. He said over 11,000 persons or over 10 percent of the population were directly affected, and by December 31 over 50,000 persons or roughly 50 percent of the population were still adversely affected by extensive disruption of water supplies.
He also explained the extensive and “huge” damage to physical infrastructure including 14 bridges destroyed; 14 bridges severely damaged; several miles of secondary roads and feeder roads ravaged; forests substantially denuded; and 662 houses damaged or destroyed. The Prime Minister put the aggregate cost at over US$120 million.
Prime Minister Gonsalves also stated that an International Donors’ Conference is being proposed to be held within the next three months to receive pledges for the rehabilitation and recovery processes in the three affected countries. Additionally, governments will apply to international agencies for loans to start rebuilding programmes. But, it will be months before loan applications can be made in conformity with the requirements of the agencies so that they can be appraised and approved for disbursement. In the meantime, the three islands are forced to cope as best they can.
In this connection, Prime Minister Gonsalves has shown creativity and imagination in mobilizing between US$13.4 million and US$19.0 million in new monies, of which he told his country’s Parliament he has already assembled US$11 million.
Significant in all this is that St Vincent and the Grenadines has sophisticated Disaster Management machinery, namely a National Emergency Council of which there are 44 members chaired by the Prime Minister; a National Emergency Executive Committee with 10-sub-committees; and over 40 district disaster management committees.
The country is to be congratulated for this machinery which, in part, must have contributed to ensuring that, in the aftermath of the disaster, as the Prime Minister put it “the immediate humanitarian/relief challenge did not metamorphose into a humanitarian disaster”.
But, in the final analysis, the effects of climate change are now defying prediction and preparedness. At the same time as there was exceptional rainfall and flooding in the islands of St Vincent, St Lucia and Dominica, there was a massive ice-storm in Canada that left 250,000 homes without electricity and heating in temperatures at minus 20 and below; Britain was battered by storms that affected over 150,000 homes; and there was snow in Cairo. It is now reasonable to assume that disasters will come suddenly and devastatingly. Therefore, preparation now calls for the unexpected.
Unlike Britain and Canada, disasters in small islands are comprehensive in their effects on people and economies. And, unlike places like Britain and Canada, small islands do not have the capacity and resources to “bounce back” – to restore infrastructure swiftly and to recover from economic losses.
That is why small countries need access to funds that are immediate. The bulk of such funds ought to be grants or loans on the softest terms. This is also why as soon as their economies are capable of it, Caribbean countries should collectively design their own disaster fund in addition to the existing Commonwealth and World Bank disaster insurance schemes.
Prime Minister Gonsalves painted in stirring terms a haunting picture of the disaster in his country and its consequences. He said: “In five hours of rainfall, floods, and landslides, hundreds of families have been reduced from vulnerability to indigence and from poverty to a “dirt poor” condition. Large numbers of people have been suffering harsh conditions as a consequence of the natural disaster, although the humanitarian response has eased some of the pain and hardship. The journey to recovery would be long and difficult. Psychological anguish or trauma is evident among the suffering and vulnerable people”.
The Prime Minister’s statements were all contained in a Budget presentation to his country’s Parliament as he warned that in light of circumstances, he would introduce a further Budget in a matter of weeks as needs and resources becomes clear. In an intriguing description, he said the Budget was “interim” in nature, but this did not mean that it was “provisional or temporising” in fact or law.
Five hours are all that it took to wreak havoc on St Vincent. The Prime Minister is right to look beyond the “provisional” and “temporising” to strengthening his country’s socio-economic base for recovery and reconstruction. Others in the region should do so too.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is a Consultant, Senior Research Fellow at London University and former Caribbean diplomat)