The recent IPCC report on the impacts of 1.5°C of global warming sounded a clear warning for Small Island Developing States (the SIDS). And watch out: the IPCC reports are known for downplaying the impacts of climate change—for instance, their reports have consistently underestimated rising sea levels.
All of the SIDS governments should now have detailed plans in place to adapt to the changing climate, and to cope with the intensifying impacts of extreme weather. In this blog, we’ll look at what small island governments can do to adapt, build resilience, and literally weather the coming storms.
If you build it, they will come
First, where’s the capital of the island? If this is on the coast, where most island capitals are generally located, plans have to be made to move the government’s disaster response offices inland and away from the coast. This is not too difficult, but it takes time. You start with selecting a town not too far away from the capital which is not vulnerable to flooding or landslides. The higher the elevation of the town the better. The town needs to have a good road to the coastal capital and a reliable electricity supply and distribution system.
Then, one by one, government ministries are relocated to the new town starting with the disaster response and relief agencies. International NGOs can be encouraged to relocate and to open offices in the town. As government offices move and the big NGOs open up, people will move to the town. The idea is to gradually induce a migration to the second city. The coastal town may remain the capital city, particularly if there are old colonial structures housing the presidency and its associated administration. But these offices, too, should eventually move to the second city once it has become the de facto government and administrative centre.
Is this idea far-fetched? No. it has already happened in many countries. Brazil and Nigeria both built new capitals inland and away from the coast. In Haiti, after the 2010 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, many businesses moved up to Petionville—a higher elevation town that soon became overcrowded, congested, and gridlocked with vehicles at all hours of the day. Haiti’s government should consider gradually moving ministries and administrative offices to Mirebalais or perhaps farther inland to Hinche—which is more central. Port-au-Prince remains hugely vulnerable to flooding and storm surge.
At the same time as this transition is slowly taking place, islands governments should be setting up a system of community centres where families can shelter during extreme weather. On many islands, school buildings are strongly constructed and will resist hurricanes and cyclones. Schools should be retrofitted as community shelters. If they are a solid concrete structure, they are well suited for this purpose. They have plenty of space, several washrooms, and can accommodate hundreds of people. But governments need to refurbish them with independent solar power systems (built to resist storms), energy storage systems (a.k.a. batteries), and communication infrastructure–particularly cell phone towers. Telephone communications are one of the first systems to fail during hurricanes and cyclones, yet communications are crucial for relief efforts and disaster response coordination.
As the recent hurricanes that devastated so many Caribbean islands have shown, disaster response planning should always assume that the electrical transmission and distribution system will fail. All disaster response planning should be based on this scenario. In 2017, Hurricane Maria destroyed all communication systems in Dominica and Puerto Rico. It is impossible to coordinate relief efforts effectively if an island’s communication systems are knocked out. Both Dominica and Puerto Rico were totally blacked out in the aftermath of Maria.
The better option
Yet they are ways to ensure that essential services still have electricity during and after violent storms. Solar photovoltaic systems are now less expensive than virtually all the other energy options. In islands where the electricity distribution system is a nightmare of tangled wires draped along the street barely above head height, it makes absolutely no sense to be considering trying to repair these out-dated systems. Rooftop photovoltaic systems should be installed on all schools, community centres, government buildings, and essential services like hospitals, water pumping stations, wastewater treatment plants, and airports. The Mirebalais hospital in Haiti, which provides primary health care to almost 200,000 people, is powered by a large photovoltaic system. It’s an example of how stand-alone photovoltaic energy systems can replace old technology with much more resilient and functional power supply.
Coastal towns and their infrastructure will remain—but on a smaller scale. All islands have ports handling everything from fishing boats to oil tankers and container ships. This infrastructure will remain operational, as will the tourist hotels and other commercial services supporting beach tourism. But large beach hotels should also be powered by independent photovoltaic systems that will resist extreme weather, and have cell phone towers installed on their roofs. The Grand Palladium Resort Hotel in Jamaica has a 1.6 MW photovoltaic system installed on the flat roofs of several of the buildings. Planning permission for large tourist hotels should always include provisions for emergency communications and independent solar power including energy storage.
Most of the people that were killed by Hurricane Maria as it ripped across Puerto Rico in 2017 died after the storm had passed. With no communications, no electricity, roads blocked, and widespread flooding, many vulnerable older people, and people requiring electricity for medical equipment died in the days and weeks after the storm.
This should be a lesson for all the small island states. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst—and never assume that the power will stay on.
For a deeper dive:
For the IPCC report look here. For more about Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico look here . And for an excellent critique of the IPCC reports and how they consistently downplay climate change impacts, check out the report What Lies Beneath. You can find it here
And to learn more about the SIDS and how they can adapt to climate change, there’s a new book: Climate change adaptation in small island developing states (Wiley 2018). (Full disclosure and total transparency: yes, I’m the author)