BUCHAREST, Romania —The Hon. Darren Henfield, Minister of Foreign Affairs and current Chairman of Council of Foriegn and Community Relations (COFCOR) delivering a address the opening session of the International Conference on Building Resilience to Natural Disasters.
Economies large and small are facing very difficult times, where myriad factors challenge our capacity to create an environment where people can be assured of sustainable livelihoods, security and safety, and a promising future for succeeding generations.
Especially of concern for small island developing states are the dangers of environmental degradation and climate change, which threaten our very survivability. During 2017, we witnessed in the Caribbean region the passage of major Hurricanes of category 4 or 5 levels. Hurricanes Irma and Maria, in 2017, caused widespread and catastrophic destruction. In the case of The Bahamas, Hurricane Irma, a category five storm, packing sustained winds of between 175 and 180 miles per hour, was the third catastrophic storm that hit The Bahamas in three consecutive years. The Bahamas, at that time, was still attempting actively to recover and rebuild following the passages of Hurricanes Joaquin in 2015 and Matthew in 2016. The recovery costs for Joaquin was estimated at $200 million US dollars. While Matthew was estimated at $400 million US dollars. The cumulative cost of all three hurricanes was close to $700 million US dollars. This is a price that is still being paid as we seek to rebuild.
On 6 September 2017, prior to the arrival of the Hurricane Irma, based on its projections, The Bahamas Government swiftly moved to carry out an emergency evacuation exercise from six of our southern islands, namely Mayaguana, Inagua, Crooked Island, Acklins, Long Cay and Ragged Island or MICAL. This action no doubt saved hundreds of lives and prevented injury.
Hurricane Irma changed course and did not directly hit the entire Bahamian archipelago, thus minimizing the impact on our tourism industry. However, we were not entirely spared. Our southern islands experienced serious damage, Ragged Island was totally devastated and is now uninhabitable. Additionally, tornadoes inflicted considerable damage on the northern islands of Bimini and Grand Bahama.
I cannot underscore sufficiently the importance The Bahamas attaches to combating climate change, the preservation and protection of the environment and the building of resilience. We are now some two months away from the beginning of the 2019 hurricane season, 1 June to 30 November, and we can only pray that our region will be spared from further destruction and loss. It is not only hurricanes and storms that preoccupy us, but increasingly we are seeing tornadic activities and flooding as a result of severe weather systems. In the southern Bahamas, for example, in the past a number of islands experienced tremors from earthquakes that occurred in Haiti and were placed on tsunami alert.
Out of the devastation wrought in Inagua and Ragged Island, it is the intention of the Government, working with the private sector, to create the first fully green island in the region, utilising renewable energy and smart technologies from solar energy to sustainable water purification systems to create a more sustainable, resilient, island community.
For small island states like The Bahamas, which are largely tourism- dependent economies, such slow-moving systems have serious financial implications. For example, as a result of Hurricane Mathew in 2017, The Bahamas Government initially borrowed $150 million and made allocations for capital works, and transfers and subsidies for relief and reconstruction. This widened the fiscal deficit from an estimated 1.0 per cent of GDP in 2016/17 before Hurricane Matthew to 1.9 per cent of GDP after Matthew, representing an $81 million increase in the deficit after the hurricane. Subsequently, we recognized that in post-disaster relief and recovery, we should have the resources and means at our disposal to finance our direct contingent liabilities more efficiently, and to be better able to provide additional aid to small businesses and low-income farmers, who are disproportionally impacted by disasters.
Furthermore, it generates safety concern amongst tourists who might wish to plan vacations to the region. Fortunately, the archipelagic configuration of The Bahamas allowed that the major economy earner Tourism can still be delivered with minimal interruption, but such configuration also means that development and infrastructure have to be replicated many times over with scarce resources.
Climate change casts a long shadow over our development efforts. The implications of rising sea levels and atmospheric temperatures signal dire consequences for low-lying island states like The Bahamas. We believe it demands a truly global response.
We can ill afford to ignore the urgency to put more resources into building resilience and sustainability in countries that are prone to natural disasters and weather events. While the delivery of humanitarian aid is important, it is a better business model to focus on prevention and the strengthening of capacity building. Such an approach would have us, for example, focus on the preservation and sustainable use of our waters, not just within our own jurisdictions, but also in those areas beyond national jurisdiction. Those areas, and their resources, must be protected and wisely used, to ensure their existence and viability for generations to come, and to ensure the shared benefit, enjoyment and continued survival of all.
Without healthy waters, The Bahamas and other similarly-situated countries may eventually cease to exist. The waters are not just a way of life for us, but are quite literally life itself, in many ways. Food production; tourism and economic benefit; sport and recreation; transportation and shipping; pharmaceutical extracts; and much, much more.
An approach that puts resilience at the core, requires a significant shift in the way we think and do business. It means, inter alia, that there should be focus on the ability of individuals, communities, organizations, and states to adapt to and recover from hazards, shocks or stresses without compromising long – term prospects for development. It also means that small island coastal communities such as The Bahamas, need to focus on adaptation in order to build resilience to natural disasters – where necessary, revising building codes, adjusting building practices and enforcing those codes.
Excessive storm surges in low-lying areas have resulted in inland flooding, in low –lying areas making some areas impassable for days or weeks. What is required is the expensive undertaking of having to elevate roads, or build bridges with culverts to allow for passage, as well as to allow for the natural flow of water along adjacent creeks and ponds.
Tornadic activities, that are now being seen as an accompanying feature of hurricanes and storms, mean there is the need for better detection to alert residents in a timely manner, and share how they can best safeguard themselves. For seismic events there is also the need to improve the alerting mechanisms and protocols for preparing for and responding to such events.
In the Agriculture and Marine Resources sector, it is not uncommon after a major hurricane to see substantial losses in the agricultural sector, and scores of marine vessels tossed inland as a result of storm surges. Many of them are often extensively damaged alone with the loss of other fishing gear and other apparatus. There is the need for the advance notification of fisher folks and other marine operators so that they can adequately secure their vessels, fishing gear and their facilities.
On the financial side, there is the need to review the regional insurance programmes so as to ensure effective risk transfer. At the international level realistic criteria is needed to enable countries to qualify for funding to assist with post natural disaster recovery and reconstruction operations. The use of per capita GNP as matrix to measure wealth defeats this purpose.
Hurricane preparedness has long been a way of life in our region. The Government of The Commonwealth of The Bahamas has proclaimed the month of June as Disaster Preparedness Month and The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) regularly conducts activities to heighten awareness of hurricane preparedness.
Resilience must now also become a way of life. We need effective collaboration and partnership at the local, regional, and international levels to support resilience building initiatives, through the sharing of resources, and best practices for knowledge exchange and capacity building.