Climate action to tackle hurricanes | Mario Peiró

12 Oct 2017

 Recent hurricanes affected up to 20 thousand dwellings in Dominica, housing for approximately 80 percent of the country’s population. UNDP photo

“To deny climate change is to deny a truth we have just lived.”

With these words, delivered at the UN General Assembly on 23 September, the Prime Minister of Dominica alluded to the situation in his country in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and María.

Four hurricanes rated category 3 or higher, including Irma, with maximum winds of up to 295 km per hour, have travelled the Atlantic in as little as six weeks, and experts warn of the possibility of more such events during this cyclone season.

These hurricanes left a tremendous impact on the Caribbean islands. Recent analyses indicate that the impact on Puerto Rico's GDP per capita over the next 15 years may reach 21 percent; 100,000 homes were affected in Cuba; and between 17 thousand and 20 thousand dwellings were affected in Dominica, housing for approximately 80 percent of the country’s population.

The infrastructure that was affected reached 92 percent in Sint Maarteen, 90 percent in Dominica and 75 percent in Barbuda, with severe damage also occurring in St. Barts, Anguilla, Saint Martin and the British Virgin Islands.

In the Dominican Republic, Hurricane Irma put 24 provinces (a full 75 percent of the country) on red alert. Some 1.7 million people were affected, and more than one million individuals experienced interruptions in their supply of drinking water.

A few days later, Hurricane Maria left 32 water mains affected, thereby restricting access to drinking water for almost 400,000 people; the hurricane destroyed nearly half of the banana production (bananas are the main agricultural export commodity, earning US$397.1 million in 2016). In addition, María left more than 9,000 houses damaged, displacing approximately 26,000 people.

Of the people affected by the hurricane, more than 40 percent already faced a situation of severe vulnerability.

Heavy rainfall saturated soils and dams, causing flooding and damage to the country's northern coast infrastructure, and resulting in severe impacts on the economy and livelihoods of the most vulnerable segments of the population.

“Building back better” is one of the pillars of UNDP’s early recovery and vulnerability reduction strategy. In the Caribbean islands, we help governments rebuild infrastructure, houses and communities. We support waste management, including through “cash-for-work” programmes that inject badly needed cash into communities while providing for critical services and promoting microenterprises and livelihoods.

Following the impacts left by Irma and María, UNDP Dominican Republic participated in an inter-agency damage assessment mission on the north coast, where implementation of the early recovery plan in the country’s border province will be supported with funds mobilized in the aftermath of these hurricanes. At the same time, UNDP Dominican Republic will continue to work on risk reduction and resilience projects, such as the risk reduction plan for the education sector, led by the Ministry of Education, which will increase the resilience of the entire community falling within the area affected by the education sector. In addition, we will continue to work on the preparation of a regional project focused on early warning and risk reduction with other Caribbean island countries that are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

However, risk reduction must be accompanied by mitigation of the threat. The high temperature of the Atlantic surface favours the formation of cyclones, and such a sustained increase would entail a greater potential for cyclone events to wreak havoc throughout the 21st  century.

To date, more than 160 countries have ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change, and investment in renewable energy is outpacinginvestment in fossil fuels. However, 80 percent of the world's energy still comes from fossil fuels, and we have a long way to go if we are to keep the rise in temperature below 2 degrees Celcius by the end of the century.

In development work we often talk of resilience, defined as the ability of a person, community or system to recover its initial state following a disruption. But to increase resilience, we must look beyond the usual meaning of the word, for what will happen if the disruption to the system persists? And what would happen if the unusual were to become commonplace in this new normal climate? Climate change could become the most powerful catalyst for displacing populations (During 2016, more than 24 million people in 118 countries and territories were displaced by natural disasters, 3 times more than those displaced by conflict.), jeopardizing their livelihoods and keeping them trapped in a state of poverty. For these people, climate change is already a reality.

We need action for the climate, and we need it now.

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