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OPINION: Sleeping with Chantal, a reminder of why to plan for disasters

Also posted in Spanish

Sam Bickersteth, CDKN’s Chief Executive, lost sleep when Tropical Storm Chantal hit the Caribbean during his recent trip – but the storm provided a timely reminder of why decision-makers must consider climate risks when they are making investment plans. 

Jamaica and other Caribbean countries have seen an increase in intensity of tropical storms and hurricanes over the past twelve years, resulting in widespread damage.   The Caribbean Community (CARICOM)’s Climate Resilience Implementation Plan (2011-2021) estimates that the costs of climate change in three categories alone – increased hurricane damage, loss of tourism revenue, and infrastructure damages – will be in the order of 22% of Caribbean Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2050.   The Plan’s authors liken this possibility to a perpetual economic recession in  the CARICOM member states.

Last week, I was in the Caribbean for the launch of a new online tool which seeks to strengthen a risk management ethic in the Caribbean, by promoting the integrationInclusion in relation to climate change promotes social inclusion as a co-benefit of adaptation, and also fair conditions to bridge the divide between developed and developing countries.'Inclusion is a sense of belonging: feeling respected, valued for who you are; feeling a level of supportive ... of resilience into all development decision-making. The Caribbean Climate Online Risk and Adaptation TooL (CCORAL) was developed by the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (5Cs) – which is tasked by CARICOM with taking forward its Implementation Plan – and has CDKN support. The Heads of State of CARICOM countries approved the development of a regional risk management framework and tool as part of the Implementation Plan for delivering transformational change in the Caribbean.

The potential value of CCORAL has already been noted by Rajendra Pachauri, the Chair of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as well as by the Caribbean Development Bank and governments of the region.   The aim is for this online tool to reach a large number of decision-makers across government, the private sector and other institutions and aid them in making the most informed choices for adapting to climate change.

Less than 24 hours before the launch of CCORAL, the emergence of a storm named Chantal, early in this hurricane season, was a timely reminder of why action on climate change is needed.    Experiencing the full force of Tropical Storm Chantal in Kingston, Jamaica, gave me a sleepless night, and also deepened my appreciation of what decision-makers are up against.

First, preparedness for disasters is vital (Jamaica has an impressive warning system from national to local levels that kicked into action); second, it’s essential to build greater climate resilience into infrastructure, land-use planning, agriculture, water and energy systems; and third, decision-makers need the best possible information on which to base decisions.  Thankfully, Chantal degenerated to a Tropical Wave and caused limited damage. However, it’s a long time until the end of the hurricane season in November and the threat of damage, injury and loss of homes, livelihoods or even lives is ever present.

Planning for resilience: a view from the ground up

Farmers and engineers are often on the front line of weather events and climate change. In Jamaica, the National Works Agency (NWA) is already adjusting the design of vulnerable coastal roads, urban drainage and bridges.  For example, the vulnerable airport road has been raised, and a new sea wall constructed. Work is underway to re-establish the natural sea defence systems of dune cover, mangroves and coral reefs.   At a cost of US$65 million, this has been financed with Chinese loans.

The NWA does not always receive the full budget it needs in order to incorporate the most resilient designs. Payment of upfront costs is still a challenge even in a country like Jamaica, which is so aware of the need.  The NWA’s Environmental Engineer, Mark Richards, told me how each storm brings anxieties around whether particular bridges will hold or whether communities will be cut off. Will future designs, incorporating more climate resilient features and informed with the best data and modelling be sufficient, in a budget-constrained environment?

Whilst there is heightened awareness of the need to integrate resilience at the national level, there is a clear gap at the subnational level. A sophisticated review system is applied by national organisations to any development proposal, especially urban, that is over a certain size. The Parish Councils approve smaller development proposals without any particular review of their resilience and adaptive nature. The incremental risk of such smaller, non-climate resilient developments, especially in flood prone areas, is worrying. CDKN is supporting Jamaican scientists to assess future risks for those in selected flood-prone river basins and design adaptation measures for vulnerable communities.  Working with the University of the West Indies (UWI) Department of Geology and Geography and its new Climate Projection Unit, CDKN is supporting innovative research to bring together historic hydrological mapping and future climate projections to underpin local government and community level action.

Uncertainty around impacts, costs and models is not preventing action in the case of Jamaica’s NWA or the UWI but in other cases there are many factors that lead to inaction – access to finance, lack of policy, institutional fragmentation, poor access to research capability and vested interests all prevent steps to build resilience.   CCORAL provides one element in the form of an expert decision tool around climate change for Caribbean countries and it has been designed so that it can be applied at all levels, from national budget planning to sectoral programmes and finally at the project level.

Next steps for CCORAL

As a tool, CCORAL is of little value until it is used. The objective, therefore, is to ensure its uptake. It must be applied to investment and policy decisions, to improve lives and livelihoods.  5Cs will be rolling out a training programme and, with further CDKN support, applying the tool in some critical sectors in selected  countries.  The strong political commitment to action on climate change in the Caribbean, together with existing institutional and research capabilities, indicates that much can be done to address the threats that Chantal and her successors will continue to pose to the region’s economy and people.

View the video of the CCORAL launch event which took place in St. Lucia on 12 July 2013.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Creative Commons, Cayobo

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