Five days after Hurricane Maria brutalized his lush island, Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit stepped up to the podium at the largest annual gathering of the world’s leaders to talk about climate change and rebuilding.
With two category 5 hurricanes striking the Caribbean in 12 days, he said, the world could no longer deny climate change. The double impact of hurricanes Irma and Maria meant the region needed help — immediately, to alleviate suffering, and in the long term, to rebuild stronger than before.
“We need resources, now,” Skerrit said during his emotional 17 minutes address Saturday at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. “We will need to rebuild homes and villages. We will need to rebuild communities, schools, roads and bridges. We will need to rebuild a country and we cannot do it alone.”
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The cost of two hurricanes — which left several islands including Dominica and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico in ruins — is still being calculated. But with preliminary estimates ranging from $250 million for Barbuda and billions of dollars more for Dominica, it’s clear that the losses are beyond the Caribbean’s financial ability to fix on its own.
“The money is not here inside of the region. We have to get it from outside,” said Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines who canceled plans to attend the annual General Assembly of the 193-member United Nations so he could help coordinate hurricane relief in the eastern Caribbean.
Publicly, Caribbean prime ministers and foreign ministers decried the hazards of global warming in speeches and high-level meetings. They argued that warmer oceans and hotter air — the effects of global warming — are making storms stronger and raising sea levels, putting islands more at risk for disasters because of their geographical locations. They called on wealthy nations like the United States to keep their commitment to help poorer nations adapt to climate change under the Paris climate agreement.
Meanwhile, behind closed doors and in the halls of the assembly, leaders lobbied the international community to rethink development aid to address what Skerrit described as “the international human emergency” facing the region.
“Money is not easy to come by these days and many of the countries have not fully recovered from 2008,” said Colin Granderson, the assistant secretary general of the 15-member Caribbean Community, or Caricom, referring to the global financial crisis, which slowed economic growth in the tourist-dependent Caribbean and put some economies on the brink of bankruptcy. “Economies are not flourishing.”
But when it’s time to rebuild, many countries say they want stronger, more resilient buildings and infrastructure.
“This means...that the international developmental and financial institutions, need to provide financing at concessionary rates without artificial impediments,” Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne said, referring to the region’s long-standing push to find grant funding and loans at low rates, known as concessionary development financing.
Browne and others argue that Gross Domestic Product, which is used to define whether a country has graduated from poverty to middle or high income, should not be the the sole or primary criterion of determining access to such affordable loans for development purposes.
Granderson said economic progress is difficult — or even impossible — if more storms mean more rebuilding at higher and higher costs.
Locked out of grants or low-interests loans, Caribbean nations are forced to borrow at high-interest commercial rates, which Browne said his already deeply indebted nation has been forced to do after Irma struck.
Barbuda, located to the north of Antigua in the Caribbean sea, was no match for Irma’s 185 mph sustained winds.
Afterward, the island — about the size of Washington, D.C. — was left uninhabitable. Ninety-five percent of its buildings were destroyed, forcing evacuation of the entire population to Antigua.
“Overnight, Antigua’s population increased by almost 3 percent,” Browne told the assembly during his address.
He asked the group “where is the justice” in a system that allows large wealthy countries to borrow at 3 percent a year interest while small island nations are forced to borrow at 12 percent. “The present international financial architecture is leaving small states such as mine behind.”
The estimated $250 million cost to rebuild Barbuda, he said, “is simply a stretch beyond our reach.”
Trevor Alleyne, Caribbean division chief at the International Monetary Fund, said the financial institution is aware of Caribbean leaders’ concerns over being shut out of affordable financing. And while the IMF, for example, has tried to focus some of its own concessionary lending programs around countries’ vulnerability to natural disasters, the type of funding the region is likely to need will require the financial support of the broader international community.
“This is not necessarily going to be a project that’s completed in the next three years but could take a much longer time,” Alleyne said.
Several Caribbean leaders confirmed that there are discussions about holding some type of donors conference in the near future to raise money. Gonsalves has suggested it take place at the same time of the World Bank and IMF meetings in Washington, and said he’s asked the head of the Caribbean Development Bank, Warren Smith, to coordinate the gathering.
“We have to make sure we are more resilient,” Gonsalves said. “But we need resources to help us and we have to address this issue of climate change globally...in order for these islands to survive and thrive.”