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Hairoun, Home of the Blessed and lately, the Flooded

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Once upon a time St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) did not experience natural disasters on such a regular basis. As hurricane after hurricane bypassed SVG and devastated our sister Caribbean islands, some climatologists explained this as simply a function of SVG being outside the hurricane path. For most Vincentians, however, divine intervention was a more compelling answer, because after all, are we not Hairoun, the Home of the Blessed?{{more}}

The idea of SVG being singled out for divine dispensation that protected us from the fury of nature was always more imagined than real. After all, we were the victims of a devastating hurricane in the 19th century and the explosive force of volcanic eruptions in 1902 and again in 1979. Squeezed between these major disasters were minor earthquakes, droughts, and storms. But what was also true is that these reminders of the potent and lethal power of nature were scarce, irregular, and thus drifted away into the Vincentian collective memory as distant echoes of fading thunder.

This collective amnesia had a profound effect on disaster planning in SVG. Absent the sense of imminent threat, successive Vincentian governments responded to these disasters when they occurred. Consequently, they failed to create a set of processes, mechanisms, and policies designed to prevent catastrophes in the first place and, when they do occur, reduce the harm they inflicted on the general population. This tendency to react to these disasters rather than plan for disasters may have been defensible in an era of more predictable climate patterns. But in this moment where we appear to be in the midst of climatological changes, triggering extreme weather events at a frequency and intensity outside of living memory, our modern Vincentian State can and must utilize our scientific, political, and logistical capabilities to meet the clear and present dangers we face.

To understand the scale of these dangers, we bring specific attention to NEMO’s Situation Report on the damage inflicted upon SVG by the latest floods. It makes sober reading. Schools and businesses were closed. Homes have been destroyed. Roads have been destroyed. Bridges have been destroyed. Fortunately for us, in this latest rendezvous with nature’s fury, no lives were lost. But we know we have not always been that fortunate. Some of our young have gone too soon, victims of raging water in earlier floods.

In this demonstration of nature’s power, the dead have not been spared. Cemeteries are at risk. Dead bodies are facing exhumation by water. And living bodies may be at risk of contracting serious or even deadly illnesses by using water contaminated by dead bodies, human waste, and other forms of water borne pathogens.

When lives are lost, the human toll from these events is beyond measurable. Every life is precious, every life is irreplaceable. But the economic cost of these disasters is measurable, huge, and rising. Every collapsed road has to be rebuilt. Every fallen bridge must be replaced. These carry a cost. We also pay a huge cost in lost production – sometimes through the destruction of our agricultural products and certainly through lost economic activity that occurs when businesses are closed or our transportation infrastructure is severely disrupted.

In this regard we draw particular attention to the Argyle International Airport. It is the single largest infrastructural project in the history of SVG. But if flooded and broken roads can make the airport inoperable, if even for one week, it is a significant cost that we would have to bear. Prudent governance suggests that our government must do everything within its power to limit the impact of extreme weather events on the operation of this important national treasure.

There are, in fact, clear indications that our policy makers understand the stakes at hand. We have embraced the science of climate change, a necessary pre-condition for taking actions designed to limit climate change. It also affirms that we recognize the dangers posed by climate variability. We have been receptive to working international organizations to meet the challenge of climate change. And as a country, we clearly possess men and women with the necessary administrative experience and scientific expertise to help us chart and implement a national project bold enough to make us a model of how small nation states can address climate change. Their wisdom we must embrace, so that we remain the home of the Blessed, not the home of the Flooded.

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